Sunday, August 28, 2005

Mi casa, su casa

My friend Mike is visiting for the weekend, and I just got off the following quip in response to his polite request to take a shower: "Mi casa, su casa -- which reminds me: Can I get your half of the rent?"

However, maybe I shouldn't say things like that right after people wake up, as he frowned and looked a little worried for a minute until I explained that I was just trying to be funny -- you know, exploring the implications of the saying, the responsibilities that come along with the privileges and all that. Still, I thought it wasn't bad for first thing on a Sunday morning.

Friday, August 26, 2005

You'd better save yourself!

Last night, I went out to dinner with my sister, her fiancé's sister, and my sister's fiancé's sister's cousin (whom I suppose could be more simply and just as accurately described as my sister's fiancé's cousin, but he doesn't really figure in the story and won't be mentioned again). I was dapper in my “Save Ferris” T-shirt (a direct reference to the movie, rather than an indirect reference to the movie via the band of the same name; I get asked this, so I might as well mention it now), which I am in fact recycling today, as I had it on only a couple of hours and it’s casual Friday.

Walking down the Danforth, we were approached by a fat panhandler. I’ve seen this guy before, and it makes you wonder how you get to be a fat panhandler. I suppose you might normally start out a fat panhandler and then gradually become a skinny one, but if you’re pretty good at it, you can start out fat and stay that way. And I’ve noticed several times from the good vantage point that I had while walking by him as he sat slumped on a stoop in his filthy shirt that he’s got a huge bald patch in an otherwise bushy head of hair that suggests some kind of brain injury in the past. So that’s probably how he got to be a panhandler.

“Could you buy my token so I can get something to eat?” he asked, holding out a subway token. “I’m starving.” One might say he didn’t look starving, but he asked in the most quavering, desperate voice I’ve ever heard a panhandler use. Unfortunately, I didn’t have anything smaller than a twenty, and I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to be able to make change. Also, I have a transit pass, so I don’t really need any tokens anyway. What’s more, I’ve had people ask me to make this kind of deal just often enough in the past that it seems like some kind of scam. I’m not sure what kind of profit margins it could possibly have, unless he’s part of a counterfeiting ring. If not, where do the tokens even come from? He could buy them, but there’s a start-up cost, as he has to buy in bulk for the scheme to make any sense. And if he was paid the cash fare for the token – which he’d probably get, as you’d have to be a real jerk to dicker on the price and drive him down – he’d still only be making a 50-cent profit per token on the bulk rate. It’d probably be easier to skip that initial investment and just ask for 50 cents. Anyway, I told him as sincerely as possible that I was sorry, but just couldn’t help.

We continued to the restaurant, where we had an unsatisfying meal. We were ignored by the waitstaff. Getting a glass of water was almost impossible. Our table was missing three place settings (I was the only one who had one), and my sister had to resort to filching cutlery from another table. Half of us were just finishing our dinners when the others were finally served. The only cooking the saganaki seemed to have received was when it was set aflame in front of us; it was otherwise a cold brick. And when the cheque arrived, it hadn’t been split, as asked. As per the advice of Essential Manners for Men, I left a tip on the low end of normal and spoke to the manager. He apologized and gave us (effectively, me, since I was the Toronto resident/chief complainer) a $20 gift certificate, which is actually more than the cost of my meal. This is why I’m not naming names, though I still wasn’t happy.

On the way back, the same panhandler approached us again. I still didn’t have change, as I’d paid by credit card, but it didn’t come to that. He came from the other side, and my sister’s fiancé’s sister quickly waved him off (a little curtly, actually). “Forget Ferris!” he shouted at our backs. “You’d better save yourself!”

Great. Now he’s mad at me, and I’m probably going to go to hell or something. Why me? I’m not the one who waved him off. I was polite to him. Why’d he have to get all Jewel on me with the “Who will save your soul” routine? A harbinger of my doom, I don’t need. Now I guess I’m screwed.

And the thing is, I was caught off guard. I’m only realizing now that if I’d thought of it then, I could have just given him the gift certificate. It would have helped him out, and it would have been a nice bit of revenge on the restaurant to send a fat, filthy, crazy (but literate) panhandler in there for a meal.

Thursday, August 25, 2005


Check out this shit I found on the Unabridged Merriam-Webster website today:

Main Entry: brand-new
Variant(s): also bran-new \brann(y)ü, -raan- sometimes -ndn-\Function: adjective
Etymology: brand-new from brand + new; bran-new, alteration of brand-new
: fresh from the manufacturer : conspicuously new and unused brand-new pigskin wallet -- Frances Crane> brand-new approach -- New Yorker>

"Bran-new"? No way. Merriam-Webster is being far too permissive here. Descriptivism is all well and good, but sometimes a lexicographer has to just put his foot down and say, "I don't care if people do say that. They're retards, it's wrong, and it's not going in."

This is exactly what I'm talking about when people sometimes say, "But it's in the dictionary," and I answer, "Then the dictionary is wrong." It may sound pompous and pedantic to contradict such a hallowed source, but sometimes it is wrong.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Aristocrats

There’s an old vaudevillian joke known as The Aristocrats. You might have heard of it; it’s the subject of a documentary by the same name that’s currently showing in theatres. It was an infamous in-joke that generations of comedians swapped backstage to entertain each other; it wasn’t performed for the general public. The set-up and punchline are always the same, but the middle is a shaggy dog story whose details differ with every telling. The premise is that a family walks into a talent agency’s office. “Have we got the act for you,” they say. “What do you do?” asks the talent scout. The family describes their act, which consists of the most shocking, disgusting acts the teller of the joke can imagine, almost always involving lengthy, graphic descriptions of incest, bestiality, scatology, abortions, and so on, an extemporaneous free jazz session of the obscene and profane. Performances of The Aristocrats are like snowflakes in that no two are identical, but like slush in that they’re invariably filthy, disgusting, and fit for the gutter. Eventually, the talent scout gasps, “That’s some act! What do you call it?” The answer: “The Aristocrats!”

What brought The Aristocrats into the public consciousness was Gilbert Gottfried. To most of us, he’s just that squinty guy with the irritating voice. To fellow comedians, he’s a legend. Here’s why: Gottfried was performing at a Friar’s Roast for Hugh Hefner and forgot to carry a number in the old equation that states that comedy equals tragedy plus time. That is, he made a 9/11 joke way too soon after the fact, and it crashed and burned worse than … well, you know. A lesser man would have evaporated in a shower burst of flop sweat. Gottfried went another way. He switched gears and, before an already-offended audience, launched into an epic telling of The Aristocrats to top all others, the public debut of the world’s dirtiest joke, and the dirtiest version of it ever told. Mouths dropped open in shock. Jesus, thought the other comics, agog with amazement. He’s going for it!

He brought the house down.

This is seen by other professional comedians as a stroke of genius, a feat of legend that prompted the making of a documentary chronicling a hundred comedians’ hundred different versions of the same joke. I see it as a potentially very useful tactic to be emulated. I’m sure we’ve all been in the situation where you find yourself telling a story and suddenly realizing in the middle that it is entirely inappropriate to the audience at hand. Most times, you’d probably just break off awkwardly and mumble that it wasn’t a really good story anyway. The way I see it, you might as well just plough on to the end, pull out all the stops, and really go for broke. Spare no detail. Make it as offensive as possible. Then suddenly leap down upon one knee, arms outstretched in an Al Jolson flourish, and exclaim with a broad, hammy grin, “And what was the name of this act? The Aristocrats!” With luck, your audience will just appreciate it as your particular version of the age-old vaudevillian joke.

It might have worked in one situation I had recently: I was recently telling a nice young lady via e-mail about an old friend of mine from university who is, as they say, quite a character. By way of explanation of what a character this friend is, I mentioned that she and her best friend, my ex-girlfriend, were the perpetrators of a practical joke that was indirectly responsible for my being banned from my friend’s wedding party years later. Well, naturally, her curiosity was piqued. And I realized then that I just absolutely could not tell her that story. Not, at least, until we knew each other much better, and even then, it would have to be told in person so I could have the ejection seat option of aborting the narrative the instant I realized it wasn’t going over well. You just can’t do that in an e-mail. So I demurred. “No fair!” she protested. “You can’t just drop that kind of reference and not follow through.”

And of course she’s right, so here’s the story.

Let’s go back about, oh, eight years ago, it must have been. My friend was dating this girl, and while she’s a fine, upstanding person, at that time, I really had no reason to believe they were going to make a go of it. Certainly, there was no way you could have convinced me they’d get married. So I didn’t really censor myself around her, and lo, when it came to pass that they did in fact make preparations to get married about three years ago, it then came out that, although I’d long forgotten the incident myself, I’d told her a story that offended her so greatly that she still nursed a quiet, burning hatred for me five years later.

And here’s that story.

One night, about ten years ago, I was sitting around in my apartment when I heard a knock on the door. I answered, but no one was there. From the stairwell, I heard scampering footsteps and giggling. I looked down to see a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, with a message written on its belly in magic marker. Rape Me, it read, with a scrawled arrow pointing down to its vagina.

I should clarify here that this was a baby doll I’m talking about. Over the years, I have occasionally told this story and just said, “So I opened the door and there was a baby there with Rape Me written on it in magic marker,” without making this clarification, and people were aghast. “You did this to a baby?!” they would gasp in horror as the story progressed and got gradually more terrible. So yes, it was in fact a baby doll, which makes a huge difference, not that it exonerates anyone involved of very tasteless behaviour.

Instantly, I realized who the culprits were. This was a horrible, tasteless prank, the product of a truly sick sense of humour, and this was exactly what I loved about my ex-girlfriend and her best friend. Let it not be said that I do not rise to a challenge. I couldn’t let this one go. So I brought the babe inside. And with the help of my two housemates, I whipped up a frothy batch of a mayonnaise/egg white concoction. I wiped the ersatz semen all over the child, attached a note that read “All done”, and then dropped it off on the girls’ doorstep, knocking, giggling, and scampering away. Some time later, I got a phone call from the girls, who conceded in awe to having been one-upped, and much merriment ensued.

I should point out that I do not actually find the idea of babies – or anyone – being raped to be funny. Yes, I did in fact used to participate in online chat rooms under the pseudonym “I Rape Babies” (which was based, incidentally, on the very first thing a very drunken classmate at Queen’s University said to me after being elected AMS President with the understanding that it was on the record to be published in the school newspaper), but the hilarity therein was derived from the sheer number of outraged people online who immediately jumped to the conclusion that anyone who posted under that handle surely did in fact rape babies. After all, who would lie on the Internet? In a similar vein, I would also attempt to have polite, reasonable conversations under the name “Ultragay”. No matter how inoffensive I was, people would immediately start hurling abuse like OMG UR A FAG!!!!1!!! I like to think the joke was on them.

But on the other hand, I was obviously a little immature back then myself. Let’s face it: I participated in a practical joke based upon the idea of sexually abusing an infant. Moreover, I had the bad taste to tell someone about it whom I didn’t know very well. And if I had known my friend’s future wife better, I would probably have known that this kind of story just would not have been perceived as very amusing by someone who worked in a rape crisis centre. How could this possibly have gone over any worse? Well, I suppose I could have told her, a devout Catholic, what my ex-girlfriend (a lapsed Catholic herself) recently revealed to me: that the doll was actually intended to represent the Christ child. So I, in fact, symbolically raped the baby Jesus.

And what was the name of this act? The Aristocrats!

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Loud, fast, and out of control

Well, I kind of lost control of myself last night, thinking about rockabilly music and then kind of raving about it to my housemate’s boyfriend and his brother.

The thing is, rock and roll was awesome back in the fifties. It was so new and exciting and optimistic. It was, to steal the name of an excellent box set on the subject, loud, fast, and out of control. A lot of the songs were just about how much the singers planned to rock in the future, along with all the places and times at which they planned to rock. And you could come up with any simple idea for a song, and the odds were that it hadn’t been done before. A song about a girl? Cool. A song about a car? Wow! Footwear? Go, cat, go! The 24 hours of the day? Crazy, man, crazy! And once that idea had been done with “Rock Around the Clock”, you could always give it a fresh spin with “Seven Nights to Rock”. "Maybelline" was about a cow, for Pete’s sake, before Chuck Berry was talked out of it.

The whole concept of rock and roll was fluid when it came to the instruments too. No one had settled on the standard power-trio format of guitar/bass/drums. The bass was still the big stand-up double bass that was big enough to be ridden like a horse (and people did just that). Piano and saxophone were still considered important rock and roll instruments on par with the guitar. But you could have any number of instruments in the band – not just as session players, but as full-time members of the combo – plus back-up singers with big smiles and matching dinner jackets. Just as long as it swung.

It all might seem quaint now, but at the time, this music was dangerous. This was music written by and for the first real generation of teenagers as we know them – kids with pockets full of spare cash and hormones and no real idea what to do with either but enough free time to figure it out. It was music by Negroes and hillbillies and skinny, horny punks with grease in their hair and switchblades in their pockets. Who would I want to have my back in a bar fight – Nick Lachey, with his gym-buffed muscles, or Gene Vincent, with his bum leg? I’ll take the guy with the greasy kid stuff in his hair any day over the one with the mousse and the frosted tips. Ol’ Gene would limp on over with a cigarette dangling from his lip and a broken bottle in his hand, cruisin’ to hand out a bruisin’.

Around this point in my rant, I got to speculating how bad-ass rockabilly greasers would have been had they had access to nunchucks, and I got so worked up I needed a jazz cigarette to calm me down.

Freeform bonus post! (Sorry, no rockabillies at this time)

Try this response the next time someone mentions Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes:

"Oh, are they together?"

Say it as guilelessly as possible. You should be able to make someone's head pop clean off.

This has nothing to do with that, but somebody told me tonight that I ought to have my own HBO special. However untrue (as I probably shouldn't), that's the best compliment I've gotten since one of my teachers once told me that I'd make a really good father. That one was apropos of nothing, and I've always kind of wondered if she meant to her kids, with whom I'd gone to school. I should have gone for it; she was a good-looking older woman.

Anyhow, look: I will be back tomorrow (or later today, technically), and there will be rockabillies mentioned at that time. Until then, if you are not reading Bad News Hughes, you have a serious problem and don't even know it. You are denying yourself the chance to sit and be enthralled by possibly the single greatest storyteller walking the earth today. Be good to yourself. You deserve it. There is a particularly fine story up right now (this sentence is always true, happily). Go read it now.

Friday, August 05, 2005

A Good Band Is Easy to Watch on DVD

The Beulah tour documentary DVD, A Good Band Is Easy to Kill, is out. Buy it! Buy it! Buy it! It was directed by Chuck Norris -- not the Chuck Norris, but it's nice to imagine. There's even a small chance I'm on it, as it contains footage from every stop on their final tour, and I was lucky enough to be at Lee's Palace in Toronto on October 21, 2003 to see them play one of the best concerts I've ever seen.* Now you can see it too.

If you haven't heard Beulah -- and too few have -- you're probably wondering why I rave about them so. What are they like? Well, the obvious reference points of the Beatles and the Beach Boys are too vague to be useful; who hasn't been influenced by them? And it probably doesn't help most people to say that they're an Elephant 6 band, or that they're a little like Summerteeth-era Wilco or a Californian Delgados. Maybe it's useful to mention that they write (or wrote, rather) sunny, horn-driven pop songs about such topics as the lead singer's father breaking his neck in a near-fatal car crash -- the same sort of perverse contrast between music and lyrics as in the Smiths' "Girlfriend in a Coma". And bitter, funny ones that simultaneously crib from the New Seekers' old Coke jingle "I'd Like to Teach The World to Sing" (but, unlike Oasis, manage to fly under the radar while doing so) and give a shout-out to Stephin Merritt. And a lot of ones that in retrospect seem, fatalistically, to be about the band's inevitable breakup.

Download some tracks like "A Good Man Is Easy to Kill", "Gene Autry", "Emma Blowgun's Last Stand", "Don't Forget to Breathe", and "Waiting for Sunset", and you'll see what I mean. Then buy everything Beulah-related that you can. Maybe they'll get back together if we finally throw enough money at them. It was your failure to buy Beulah albums that broke them up in the first place. Atone for your sins, murderer.

*Lead singer Miles Kurosky, for his part, was able to admire one of the best T-shirts ever seen: my ever-popular "Wolf Buddy" shirt. He told me after the show that he'd nearly pointed it out from the stage, but hadn't wanted to embarrass me. What a considerate rock star!

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