The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

RELIGION AND POPULARITY: These days you can learn a lot from television game shows, a lot more than you used to. For example, not too long ago the producers of Family Feud asked a studio audience what religious figure—other than Jesus—would you like to ride in a car with on a cross-country trip? This is a question, I must admit, that had never occurred to me before, and with any degree of luck will never occur to me again. I must admit that I am not a very imaginative person, so the concept of having a religious leader in my car is simply something that would never occur to me, and, to be honest, the idea of driving across the vast length and breadth of the United States with such a person is not all that congenial. Don't misunderstand me; I am all for religion and religious people doing what makes them and the Lord happy. Religious leaders, whether you agree with their theology or not, are trying to do the Lord’s work and, to my mind, are best seen doing just that. But going cross country with someone who spent all their time communing with the Almighty and then tried to deny that the big blob of ketchup you noticed dangling from the (or maybe her; religious leaders come in all sizes, shapes, and genders nowadays) back end of the Big Mac you bought him (or her) at the truck stop McDonald's on Interstate 70 just outside Topeka, Kansas had just plopped down on your best new pair of light colored trousers after you warned the dumb bastard to use his paper napkin to wipe the ketchup away not once but twice in as many minutes would be enough to put me off religion for life.

But in the here and now, the two most popular answers to this question were, respectively, Moses and God. This Mosaic supremacy over the Deity seems a little peculiar to me, given that Moses could not split the Red Sea, make manna fall from heaven, or visit plagues on a hapless Yul Brynner and the Cecil B. DeMille stock company without the Lord’s say so in the matter. Indeed, Holy Scripture tell us that Moses lacked the verbal facility that we usually associate with high office, President Bush being the exception that proves the rule; his brother Aaron did Moses’ bloviating for him. This probably made electioneering a bit difficult for Moses; most voters are apt to be more than a bit suspicious of a candidate who doesn’t like to talk about himself or his platform; such modesty does not appear natural to voters and makes them wonder what the candidate is hiding. After all, if the candidate’s brother is doing all the talking and all the politicking, why not vote for him and not the man actually running? Such a politician is and will always be, as Mr. Brynner said in another context, a puzzlement to the electorate.

I also wonder what the religious inclinations of that studio audience were. As the United States is a largely Christian country, my assumption was that these people believe that Jesus is God and therefore God could not be an answer to this question, unless they were a group of Unitarians. It’s possible; stranger things have happened, you know. The Pope did not make it to the list, for example, while the Dalai Lama did, and this is a country where Roman Catholics outnumber Tibetan Buddhists by, what, millions to one? So you never know where these things can go.

After going over all the various choices, I am still not sure why Moses beat out God in this survey, although simple charity seems the likeliest reason: a man who wanders in the desert for forty years looking for the Promised Land obviously needs a lift to get where he’s going, whereas the Almighty, being ubiquitous as well as omnipotent and omniscient, is already at His destination and presumably does not need our help to get there.


Thursday, September 23, 2004

NOTHING, OR THE TROUBLES OF THE ROMANS: The trouble with having nothing to say, of course, is not simply that I’ve really nothing that I want to write about or comment on, but that I am expending an extraordinary amount of time and effort on this dry patch. One would think that since I’ve nothing I want to say then I would simply stop writing now and go on to other things, but I’ve started now and the momentum is building and so having gone down the road this far I am more or less committed here whether or not I’d like to be. Just the breaks of the game, I suppose.

This leads inevitably, I think, to the concept of zero. Think about it for a minute. Well, actually don’t think about that; think about this: the Romans did not have a zero. In fact, they didn’t even have numbers; they had capital letters and used them for numbers, though to be fair to the Romans, they didn’t have lower case letters either, for that matter. So your average Roman had to use whatever was available. This is the sort of thing that happens when you spend your free time acquiring all the available beachfront property on the Mediterranean; you run into some smart real estate broker and before you know what you’re agreeing to you’ve signed on the dotted line and have a whopping big mortgage plus the wife, the 2.7 kids, the dog, and the car. And all because you were too lazy to listen to Mrs. Lindermann explain how to do percentages and long division in seventh grade math class. It’s no wonder that the Roman Empire fell, what with those guys trying to figure out whether MIX egg yolks is part of a recipe for lemon meringue pie or a fancy way of saying 1,009 egg yolks. One hopes for the former, because I wouldn’t know what to do with that many egg yolks; there is, after all, only so much lemon meringue pie that any one person can eat.

There is, of course, a certain snob appeal to using Roman numerals. For example, take a look at the Super Bowl. This is an event so constipated on its own importance that it practically begs for a Roman numeral. We’re up to the XXX’s now, and you have to pity the poor pervert who turns on his television on Super Bowl Sunday hoping to catch a good porno flick only to have a usually dull football game start instead; this year, of course, being a slight exception to the general rule.

Banks and other portentous financial institutions also like having Roman numerals inscribed on their buildings. They are there, I think, to advertise the financial solidity of the institutions housed within and to assure depositors and investors that there is at least one set of numbers on the premises that the accountants can’t finagle. This has a calming effect on many people, I’m told, and helps put them to sleep, so that they can be fleeced more easily. The numbers add a degree of pomposity that bankers seem to like a great deal. I am not sure why this should be the case, only that it is; I generally ascribe such quirks to a difficult adolescence, but I may be wrong about that.

My, my, my, I seem to have drifted into writing about something, after all. Well, that’s always a good thing, I guess; content clearly has its place in the overall scheme of things. I do seem to have gotten away from the zero, which is what I didn’t want to write about in the first place when I started down this somewhat winding path. There a lot of things one can say about the zero, but at the moment I don’t want to say them. What I really want to do now is stop writing, and you know what, I think that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

BRING ON THE BEARS!!!: Several spectacled bears recently attempted a mass breakout from the Berlin Zoo, an attempt that met with their almost immediate reincarceration. This mass break for freedom reminds this cynical viewer of the political scene just how far some individuals will go to escape from the grips of statist totalitarianism and enjoy the unalienable rights that all too many Americans take for granted. It is an aspiring tale, and one that should sound the tocsin for the younger generation, who are in danger of forgetting the lessons of the Cold War.

The statists and others of their ilk would have the average American believe that these bears believe that these bears were content with their lot. As bears in the Berlin Zoo they lived in a perfect statist society in which every need they ever had or could even hope for was immediately satisfied. The bears did not have to endure the rigors of the hunt, but received food regularly three times a day. The bears had fresh, clean water available whenever they wanted it instead of having to search for it. There was cradle to grave medical care, and, in case some other zoo wanted a spectacled bear, the zoo provided sexual companions, both male and female, for the bears in their charge. A perfect totalitarian state, indeed, where no decisions needed making, no living earned, no thought given to the morrow, and all that is required to enjoy this life is that you never disturb the established order with your petty individual desires. What bear could resist the blandishments of such an existence over the uncertain life of his bearthen in the forest primeval?

And yet…and yet some bears resisted, much to the astonishment of their keepers. The keepers could not understand why any bear would want to escape the perfect world created for them. Such a desire, in their minds, is irrational in the extreme, and that some bears might think along those lines was, in all likelihood, a sign of some mental disorder in the bears themselves; the system itself did not need reformation at all, being perfect in every way. Mental defect: there was no other rational explanation.

But as Dostoevsky’s underground man pointed out more than a century ago, humans are not rational creatures, they are not members of an anthill, mere cogs in a perfect social machine, one cog more or less indistinguishable from his comrades. Humans are irrational, tormented beings, filled with vices and all manner of passions, who will never content themselves to or be content with such an ordered static existence. And if this is true of human beings, how much more true will it be for bears, who are not compelled by law to undergo the twelve years of state indoctrination known as compulsory education?

No, the keepers at the Berlin Zoo could not understand that the bears might regard freedom, with all its inherent problems and dangers, as entirely preferable to the vegetable existence forced on them. The rulers of totalitarian societies seldom understand this need for freedom; after all, doesn’t everyone benefit from their dictatorship of the zoological proletariat? Don’t these people understand that the greater good makes their rule necessary? Of course, they do not want honest answers to these questions; statist totalitarians long ago came to the conclusion that if reality does not match the theory then there must be something wrong with reality.

As for the brave bears, their freedom lasted only a few hours before the keepers tracked them down and returned them to the ursine gulag. They are there now, under greater restraint and tighter surveillance than ever, separated from others of their kind lest their ideas of personal liberty prove subversive to the good order and proper functioning of the zoological collective. And in the worse horror of all, the keepers have removed the bears’ spectacles, so that they, trapped in the prison of extreme myopia, could not see where they are going if they ever attempted to escape again.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

BOTANICAL TYRANNY: All is not as well as it could be here, I’m sorry to say. In a classic case of governmental overreaching, the municipal solons who govern our happy little burg have produced one of the greatest examples of botanical draconianism since someone informed Napper Tandy that the shamrock was by law forbid to grow in Irish ground, as the song goes. Shamrocks are, of course, not included in this particular ordinance; there are still enough Irish and their descendants about so that political officeholders who want to hold on to their jobs, and that includes the vast majority of them, do well not to disturb the Irish and their ethnic sensibilities in this politically correct age, although an ethnic group that at times glories in its gross stereotyping as a loutish mob of riotous drunks can hardly complain that their ethnic sensibilities are offended by anything. But I digress. We are speaking here of weeds, yes weeds, damn it all, which are now, by an act of the city council, forbidden to grow to a height of ten inches anywhere within the city limits of our fair community.

This, of course, brings up the question: what exactly is a weed? A metaphysical question, really, when all is said and done, but one with profound implications, I think. Unless I miss my guess, a weed is a plant regarded by your average human being, and we can go on for hours about just what constitutes this semimythical creature, as both unaesthetic and lacking in utility, an opinion that displays, in all its baleful consequence, the corrupting influence of ancient Greek philosophy, especially Platonic philosophy, upon botany. Why should plants have to justify themselves on terms that no human would, this side of the Nazi Party, dream of applying to other humans? Why should the Kantian dictum that persons are never the means to an end, but always and absolutely an end in themselves by virtue of their humanity not be extended to the humble weed? Because they neither please the eye nor fill the belly, are they, no less than any other of God’s creatures, not entitled to existence?

And then there is the question of practicability; can a group of people, even people who come by their offices by democratic election, simply decide, on their own, that crabgrass cannot grow inside the city limits when its been here a lot longer than you have, buster, and don’t you forget it. The war against the weeds is an ongoing enterprise, from generation unto generation, from the time of Adam and the first lawnmower even unto this day, and will continue ever after. This is the way of the world, folks; the dandelions are here to stay so get used to it.

The ordinance also coerces honest citizens by fining them, on an ever increasing scale, for not joining in this botanical jihad, thereby compelling good citizens to confront their consciences as they mow down the budding and altogether helpless ragweed stalks (Well, ragweed should be an exception to the rule; I have allergies). One of the great evils of totalitarianism as practiced in the late and not terribly lamented 20th century was the way it co-opted ordinary people by letting them indulge their prejudices under the cover of law. Have a noisy or obnoxious neighbor? Can’t find a way of getting rid of them? Have no fear; the answer is as simple as two plus two equals five, and it does equal five if Big Brother says so, comrade. Simply denounce the clod to the secret police as a traitor to the proletariat or the master race, as the case may be, and watch how fast your problem with this person disappears, along, of course, with the person, his family, and his cat as well.

Yes, the evils of totalitarianism are upon us. Now, dedicated squads of fanatical little old ladies will troop over the lawns of our happy little burg with a copy of the ordinance in their handbags next to rulers and tape measures and tissues and bingo cards, carefully measuring any plant that does not meet their subjective standards of beauty and / or utility, prepared to denounce any hapless homeowner with an oversized golden rod growing on his property to the authorities. We are in for bitter times, I think. The plant police will be everywhere then, uprooting our liberties along with the dandelions, a threat to decent citizens throughout the city.

Can anything stop this attack upon our civil liberties? After much thought and soul searching I am now certain that the answer is no, not really. Let’s be honest; no one gives a rat’s ass about the civil rights of poison ivy; I know I don’t, although I should. That’s just the way it is. You can argue that the modern American suburban lawn is as unnatural as a polyurethane palm tree and it will do no good. People want their nice green lawns and that’s all there is to it. So point the Mexican guy mowing your lawn in the general direction of the crabgrass and tell him to have at it, or whatever the equivalent expression in Spanish is. Yet another example of humanity's selfish indifference to other species and their rights.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

WHO ME, DWI?: Now, over in the gangrenous pit of urban squalor that lies directly across the river from our happy little burg, a scandal of epic, or as epic as they bring themselves to muster over there, seems to be brewing. The city manager finds herself in a bit of a quandary due to a singularly silly indiscretion, although the local political bigwigs contend that she continues to enjoy their absolute, total, and unqualified support, at least for the time being. The exact chronology, along with most of the really pertinent facts, are a bit hard to come by right at the moment, but it would appear that the city manager attended a retirement party for the chief of the local gendarmerie and, upon leaving, managed to smash the city owned SUV she was driving into a tree. A local citizen came running out of his home to render assistance as any good citizen should in a situation like this, but by then the city manager had fled the scene in said SUV, the SUV having sustained a massive U-shaped dent in the engine block. In her wake the city manager left behind, among other things, a pile of smashed automobile glass, several pieces of miscellaneous metal, and one of her license plates, a clue that the crack team of local Sherlocks put on the case did not hesitate to follow up on.

When confronted with the overwhelming evidence against her, the city manager claimed that she swerved to miss a deer, which is plausible, given that deer are as common as rats in this neck of the woods; what a bit less plausible is her claim that she somehow managed to break three bones in her left foot while walking her dog later that night and didn’t notice this fact until the next morning. The city manager denies categorically the insinuation bandied about by some members of the local news media, several police officers, an eyewitness with perfect vision, another eyewitness with not so perfect vision but who got a great deal on his car insurance by switching to Geiko, five squirrels, one opossum, and a mob of Jehovah's Witnesses standing in a field of barley awaiting the imminent return of their Lord and Savior that she drove into the tree while under the influence of alcohol, claiming that she drank but one glass of wine at the aforementioned retirement party. The Passing Parade has no further thoughts on the subject, other than that the city manager’s dog must be the size of an elephant and that we could use a bottle of whatever it was she was drinking.

Monday, September 13, 2004

GUYS IN PAJAMAS: You'd think that a group as obsessed with the Vietnam War as the mainstream media appears to be these days would think twice before describing the blogosphere as a bunch of guys in their pajamas. For those of you born after 1975, Vietnam was where the United States lost a war to guys in unstylish black pajamas. Strange that no one seems to have pointed that out, what with one of the presidential candidates pretending that 1969 was only yesterday. But I guess when it's your institutional ox on the wrong end of the goring you are apt to miss these little historical ironies.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

SOY COBARDE: This New York Times op-ed piece by one Javier Marias is one of the most disgusting pieces of contemptible, decadent, and gutless slop I have ever read. That the Times would give this cretin space to pronounce such views on the anniversary of the greatest mass slaughter of civilians in American history leads me to think that there is probably more than one person on the op-ed staff that agrees with the man's outlook. Senor Marias may want to treat terrorism as one of life's more annoying but inevitable disturbances and go back to eating tapas and drinking sangria without a care in the world, but I am not. This may mean that I am just a simple naive and unnuanced American, unaccustomed to the greater worldly wisdom of Europeans, but I am reminded of a story I read years ago about a lynching in a Western frontier town. A gunman shot down a man in a saloon; the local townspeople grabbed the killer and strung him up from the nearest building. The next day the local newspaper wrote that while many people might disapprove of the townspeople's impromptu justice, the newspaper did not. We have not yet reached that heightened level of civilization, the newspaper wrote, where honest citizens are prepared to permit assassins to walk our streets unmolested. As for Senor Marias, John Stuart Mill summed up what I think of him and his ilk:

"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."

Saturday, September 11, 2004

9/11: I could say something about the events of three years ago, but these three men sum up what I think we should be doing and what I hope we continue to do.

“Kill them, sir, kill every man!” Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.

"The proper strategy consists in inflicting as telling blows as possible on the enemy's army, and then causing the inhabitants so much suffering that they must long for peace, and force the government to demand it. The people must be left with nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war." Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan.

"The only good Indians I ever saw were dead." Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan.

"War is upon us, none can deny it. It is not the choice of the Government of the United States, but of a faction; the Government was forced to accept the issue, or to submit to a degradation fatal and disgraceful to all the inhabitants. In accepting war, it should be 'pure and simple' as applied to belligerents. I would keep it so, till all traces of the war are effaced; til those who appealed to it are sick and tired of it, and come to the emblem of our nation, and sue for peace. I would not coax them, or even meet them half-way, but make them so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it." Lt. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.

I'm sorry if this offends you, but it's how I feel. Three years has not made a difference in this. I thought it would, but it hasn't, not really.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

JUST WONDERING: A gun safety demonstration ended in failure and more than a little personal discomfiture the other day when a man demonstrating how to safely use a pistol managed to shoot himself in the leg. I suppose that I am not alone in finding this situation more than a little ironic. What gives the situation a special piquancy is that the gentleman with the hole in his leg is the local coroner. If the man died of the wound, which I understand is not likely at the time of this writing, his confreres in the forensic pathology biz could enter, under cause of death, self-induced terminal embarrassment.


Sunday, September 05, 2004

RANDOM THOUGHT: Do pasta makers cut spaghetti into those long strings using spaghetti saws, I wonder.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

WELL, CRUSH ME, I'M A GRAPE: Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Soviet secret police, often wore a leather greatcoat whose sleeves he deliberately cut off at the middle of the forearm. An uninteresting sartorial factoid about Iron Feliks, you may argue, only proving that Communism and couture were enemies from the outset, which may be true but is not really my point. Dzerzhinsky chopped the sleeves off his coat for a reason. He did it to show his wrists, which were permanently scarred from the years he'd spent wearing manacles in the Tsar's prisons. It was his way of telling the cafe Communists who'd come back to Russia from their safe European exiles that he'd actually suffered for the cause, that he'd put his life on the line for the Revolution, as opposed to a great many who'd done nothing but talk a good fight. Dzerzhinsky came to mind earlier this week when many of the protestors arrested by the NYPD at the Republican convention complained bitterly about the unsanitary conditions they had been kept in. Indeed, here is a link to a British site that describes what happened to the protestors as a police atrocity. I used to worry about these people; their sudden emergence from the paranoid underground in Seattle gave me pause, to say the least; but if the revolution requires a hot shower and three square vegetarian meals a day then I don't think we have much to worry about from this crew. Remember, Stalin knew that there would never be a Bolshevik revolution in Germany when he saw the German communists, his fraternal comrades in worldwide socialist revolution, patiently lining up to buy their railway tickets like any other good law-abiding beerswilling bratwurst munching German bourgeois, or burger, as the case may be.

Friday, September 03, 2004

SMUGGLER'S BLUES: I’ve been living with this for a long time and just thinking about it makes me red with shame, but in my youth I was a mule. That’s right, a mule, a bearer of illegal substances from Europe to America. I didn’t want to be a mule; I fought against it for as long as I could, but in the end I went along with the nefarious plans of the evil cabal I had fallen in with. I know that this does not excuse my complicity with these evil people; I, like Dostoevsky’s hero Raskolnikov, could have gone to the Haymarket in St. Petersburg and kissed the good Russian earth and then gone to the police station and confessed my crime as he did, but in the end I did not; I wasn’t anywhere near the Haymarket, had no immediate plans to go there, the good Russian earth of the Haymarket has probably been paved several times over since Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment back in the 1860’s, and I don’t speak Russian. I realize now I could’ve gone to some other, preferably English-speaking, police agency, maybe in Florida or Hawaii or someplace else with nice weather all year round, and bared my soul; I could have copped a plea or offered to turn state’s evidence, but in the end I did nothing; I smuggled and I only hope that I will be forgiven for the evil deed I committed.

The smugglers’ first approach was subtle. I hadn’t been to Sicily for a few years and I was planning on returning to Catania for a few days and walk up Mount Etna again, not realizing that Etna was, at the time, erupting. In fact, everyplace I’d been on Etna on my previous trip to Sicily was now under several feet of molten lava. As I was making my plans a “friend” of my brother’s sidled up to me in his sneaky way and asked if I’d bring something back from Sicily for him. I said sure, what was it? And he just smiled and said, don’t worry about that now, guy, I just need to know that you’ll do it. I said sure thing again, not realizing what I’d just done. I should have known better, but I was a poor unsuspecting naïf then, unaware of the dark forces beginning to swirl around me.

I flew off to Sicily, hoping to avoid the influenza that darkened my first trip there, and instead found myself trapped against the fuselage by two elderly men, both of whom were hard of hearing, and who therefore spent the entire eight hour trip to Rome screeching into each other’s ears in Italian. The Italian-American sumo wrestler sitting in front of me didn’t help matters either when he decided to lean his seat back as far as it would go, crushing my knees beneath the immensity of his megaobese carcass. But other than that the trip went fairly well and it only took an hour and a half for the circulation in my legs to return to normal when I reached Rome. The flight from Rome to Catania was without incident of any kind and in the end the flying beer foam injured only three German tourists and a stewardess.

My brother picked me up at the airport and we launched that very day into a long series of sightseeing tours designed to keep my uncle, who was also visiting my brother, distracted from the main business at hand. We visited Agrigento to see the Valley of the Temples and the Capuchin catacombs in Palermo, where the cream of 18th and 19th century Sicilian society, the same people that di Lampedusa writes of in his classic novel, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), do not rest in peace like the common run of people, but rather hang from the walls like freshly washed laundry. I am sure if some of these people knew how out of fashion their clothes are they’d kill themselves. We saw the great Greek theatres at Taormina and Syracuse, where I explained the workings of Greek tragedy to my uncle, and Waxey O’Connor’s Irish Pub, where I actually went to the men’s room and applied my bare backside to a toilet seat on a busy Friday night. Yes, I realize this was an act of either incredible bravery or irredeemable folly on my part, but I had to go and the rash cleared up in just three months.

Yes, I spent the days enjoying the warm Sicilian sunshine, the nights going out and eating at expensive restaurants and letting the uncle pick up the tab. But he only stayed a week; he had to return to New York; my second cousin had just had a baby and he had to go back for the christening. It was then, when there were no witnesses from back home to stay his hand, that my brother began to enmesh me in the dark and illegal world of smuggling.

The day after my uncle left my brother suggested that we go meet his girlfriend’s family and then we could go eat at a restaurant near the palazzo at the city’s center. This seemed a good idea at the time and so I agreed. The girlfriend’s family, several generations of them, in fact, all lived in one apartment building at the end of a badly lit dead end street. From the outside, the apartment building looked as though the United States Army Air Forces bombed the place during the invasion of Sicily in 1943 and nobody had bothered to fix the damage in the intervening decades. The inside, however, was rich marble and beautiful furniture, ancient Roman statuary actually made by ancient Romans, a place where Italian good taste and wads of cash had produced a masterpiece of interior design. “Why don’t they fix the outside too,” I naively asked my brother.
“Fixing the outside means the tax man will know they have money,” my brother replied. “Everyone in Italy does the same thing. The outside of the building almost always looks like crap. Some of the richest people in this country live in buildings peasants wouldn’t keep a pig in, at least from the outside.” Of course, if everyone in Italy does this then one must ask how the tax authorities are fooled by such an obvious trick, since they must be doing the same thing themselves, but at that moment the door to one of the apartments opened.

The apartment belonged to my brother’s former girlfriend; they are still on very good terms; and he wanted me to meet her family, especially her grandfather. We went out to the restaurant, where the staff regarded my request for spaghetti with the sausage on the pasta as American asininity at its very worse. They were all very nice people and the party went on into the wee hours. The food was wonderful and I stuffed myself silly. It was early in the morning of the next day that Nonno, or so he was called by everyone, leaned over to me and said, “You do something for me?” In the spirit of bonhomie I agreed. “Sure thing,” I said. “Anything you want.” The old man smiled and starting talking to my brother in Italian. I had no idea what they were talking about; my grasp of Italian vocabulary is limited to words describing food. Then the old man patted me on the back. “Good man,” he said in English. “Good man.”

As we walked back to the hotel I asked my brother what the conversation was all about. “Oh, nothing really,” my brother said. “We were talking about ways of hiding something.” “Why,” I asked. “Because we don’t want to get you into trouble.” “Why would I get into trouble,” I said. “Because you just agreed to bring two gallons of fresh olive oil with you to the States.” At that moment I felt the sidewalk giving way under my feet. Before you decide that this is a fairly hackneyed metaphor, and it is, really; I could probably come up with something a lot better if I had the time; you should know that I am not using the phrase metaphorically or as a description of some sudden change in my emotional state, but rather as a description of the effects of gravity upon my small area of the space-time continuum. In short, I fell off the sidewalk, which is what happens when you don’t look where you are going. It was not, my brother told me later, a graceful fall. Apparently I went down with all the aerodynamic grace of a side of beef chucked out a fifth story window; I pitched, I rolled, I yawed all at the same time, like a test pilot who’s pushing the outside of the envelope only to have the envelope break open and an embarrassing love letter from a woman who is not your wife fall on the floor at the feet of the woman who is your wife, and I did all of this without the benefit of an ejection seat. Upon landing, if multipoint sprawling impact with the street counts as landing, I split open the knees of a brand new pair of trousers that I hadn’t even paid for yet. I rose from the gutter bloodied and thoroughly bowed, my knees scraped raw by the impact, blood filling the hole I’d made in the street. It was the beginning of a bad few days.

The thing of it was, of course, and as you already know, I did not want to smuggle fresh olive oil, or anything else, for that matter, into the United States; I would just as soon not find out what twenty years in the big house in Leavenworth is like. I pleaded with my brother to help me find some way out of this situation, but it soon became clear that he had thrown his lot in with this vicious gang of oil smugglers and then he was as anxious as they for me to deliver my illegal cargo. So it was the greatest of trepidation that I started home, home to America, home with two gallons of fresh green olive oil concealed in the legs of the pair of trousers I had ripped and had not yet paid for.

The first part of the trip was not so bad; the movie was Miss Congeniality, and while this is not Sandra Bullock’s greatest work anything with her in it is a welcome relief, letting those of us caught up in the tense world of international olive oil smuggling to pass a couple of hours without reflecting on the dark and dangerous row we hoe. As the plane reached Newfoundland the flight attendants handed out customs declarations and pens and asked us to please fill them out. I read the document carefully, looking around casually to make sure no one noticed my intense interest in the section about not bringing foreign agricultural products into the United States. I played it cool, just in case someone was watching. Someone was watching: I noticed the guy two seats back looking around as well; that’s when I knew I was in trouble. The Feds, they’d been on to me all along, just waiting for the chance to catch a mule with olive oil in his trousers. My blood pressure skyrocketed and I began sweating profusely. I had to escape, which is not an easy thing to do from a Boeing 747 cruising along at 45,000 feet at 500 miles an hour, especially when you’re flying over the North Atlantic without a parachute. And even if I managed to solve all these problems, I still can’t swim.

Since the problems involved in escaping from my immediate circumstances proved more or less insurmountable, I had to find another way of escaping the calm, cool, but otherwise not terribly competent customs agent who’d so casually blown his cover. He probably thought he had me trapped, but those of us in international olive oil smuggling have a trick or two up our sleeves as well; it’s just that I didn’t know what any of those tricks were. So I filled out the customs declaration, perjuring myself when I reached the part about not bringing agricultural products into the United States.

The plane landed at Kennedy International Airport and my trip through a world of intimidating fear, paranoia, and formless dread began, but first I looked for a McDonald’s. There were none; you may have missed this, but I have noticed that the departures areas of international airports are packed with every fast food outlet, bookstore, coffee shop, and duty free liquor store known to humanity; the arrivals areas are devoid of economic life, the reason being, I suppose, that the people who run the airports want you to go away, get lost, vamoose, scram already, and to do all of these things immediately, if not sooner. Damn, I thought to myself. I would not be able to put off my confrontation with U. S. Customs. I marched down the halls to the baggage carousel with all the determination of a thief trying to brass his way out of a botched bank job. At the carousel I waited. I waited some more. Then I waited some more. The baggage handlers, sick sadistic fiends that they are, did not want me to get on with it, but to stay in this miserable friendless place surrounded by watchful eyes ready to pounce on the hapless olive oil smuggler.

At excruciating length my bags appeared and I picked them up; a sudden feeling of doom came over me. It occurred to me that I could have left the bags and fled for the hills and no one would ever know my guilty secret. But if I had, then the cold and ruthless men who had lured me into a life of crime would hunt me down and terminate my employment with extreme prejudice. Hung on the horns of a dilemma, I took the bags and headed for Customs.

I got on the line for American citizens and waited as the line drew ever closer to the inspector. When my turn came I marched forward, prepared to lie, cheat, steal, and kill in order to get my olive oil (I’d started to think of the oil in my trousers as mine, even though it would never be, in any meaningful sense) into the United States. The inspector, a cheerful young woman, welcomed me back to the United States and looked at my passport. She ran it under some kind of optical device and then handed it back to me. The tension stretched my nerves to their limit as I expected momentarily the sudden arrival of Customs agents the size of linebackers who would escort me to a back room of the airport, where they would beat the truth about my smuggling out of me. I picked up my bags and said, “Thank you.” I walked away, the sweat running down my back in marathons, staining my shirt. I headed for the exit, my muscles straining as I awaited the tackle by Treasury agents that would end my life of crime before it’d really gotten off the ground and send me to federal prison for life. I thought that I might crack under the strain and go mad then and there. I passed through the doors and a man said, “Taxi, mister?” “No,” I screamed, “don’t beat me, I confess.” “Okay, mister, you confess, but do you need a taxi? Thirty dollars into the city.” “Oh,” I said. “Okay.”
STUNNING NEWS: The cover story of the current New Republic's dead tree edition is on how the Bush campaign co-opted Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, who allowed such an egregious crime to occur in order to advance their own political careers. Let me see if I've got this right: two prominent Republican politicians are supporting the Republican Party's candidate for the Presidency. The nerve of them! The rank opportunism! The sheer effontery of it all! Where is Claude Rains to tell us how shocked he is? I mean, politicians calculating how to gain higher office? What is the country coming to? You can bet your bottom dollar that fine upstanding gentlemen like Bill Clinton and John Kerry never spent a minute calculating how they could be elected to the Presidency; it wouldn't be like them at all.