The Doomsday, or Coffee, Device


I was rather absorbed the other week with the idle thought that it would be terrifically annoying to be a “narwhal,” those arctic whales with the horns protruding out of their heads. At first the idea of a sharp, calcified horn protruding from my face might be an interesting one. There is no better way to get whatever is in front of you moving than to jab it with a sharp proboscis. No more crowds on the subway. No more lines for the movie theater. No more waiting for a drink at the bar. I’d have all the space I would need if I were a theoretical, walking, land narwhal. Good conversation piece, too. People would be like, ‘What is that?’ and I would be like, ‘It’s a big huge spear jutting from my head,’ and people would be like, ‘Cool, what do you use it for?’ and I would be like, ‘Hell, what don’t I use it for.’


But then I had cause to reconsider. They swim in packs, these narwhals, and I suspect that leads to constant, inadvertent jabbing anywhere they turn. Anything fashionable eventually gets oversold, and would I be ready for packs of people with narwhal horns stabbing me every which way? It’s bad enough that people have mouths for noise pollution, much less a tangle of dangerous shofars in all directions.


Clearly I am not equipped to handle disaster notifications like the one that Hawaii had to contend with the other week. It takes me awhile to pull myself out of being a narwhal, and put myself back into me, and then there is the matter of finding shelter for an imminent nuclear attack. Realizing I have no escape plan for an imminent nuclear attack, I would end up running through the house to find a decent travel cup for my coffee, and my favorite hat, and my keys, and my MP3 player so I can blast the playlist, “Songs to Flee to,” which has a lot of Motorhead and Slipknot on it, and by the time I emerged from my house the rest of the neighborhood may have already been turned into a barren, moon-like expanse of charred desolation, ruining not only my town but the resale value of my property.

Happy was I to hear that the imminent nuclear threat was a false alarm. But then came the secondary, real alarm. That is a helluva wrong button to push. Maybe it wasn’t an accident. Maybe some bored systems manager had decided to give everybody a nice morning jolt. After all, Orson Welles reported on a Martian attack in New York and New Jersey and was rewarded with one of the biggest movie deals in RKO history. Without his terrifying hoax we wouldn’t have the masterpiece, Citizen Kane.

A young Mark Twain, given his first job as a copy editor, had this to write in the top heading of the Hannibal Journal.
(“We had set the above head up, expecting, (of course) to use it, but as the accident hasn’t happened, yet, we’ll say… to be continued.”)
Twain went on to be one of the greatest literary icons in American history. Unfortunately for posterity, to pull a stunt like Twain and Welles these days would be to land in jail. There is an unwritten rule that is profoundly American, and it is this: Do it before it becomes illegal.

As such we may have been robbed of the Hawaiian Mark Twain, as he has been relocated to a supervisory position that requires no thought whatsoever, which, lucky for him, are quite plentiful in any government structure.

But then I heard the news that it was all a mistake. In fact, I had received a transcript of the actual conversation leading to the perilous error that had occurred between the supervisor and the impetuous tyro, the negligent button-pusher.
To wit:
“Okay,” said the supervisor, “here is your work space. I’ll give you a quick tutorial of the bank of buttons in front of you. First, if you want a coffee, we are in Kona country after all, if you want a coffee just hit button B-125 and it will be brought to you.”
“What about button B-126?” said the tyro.
“Push B-126 if you want sugar in your coffee. Press B-127 if you want cream and sugar, and B-129 will get you a coffee with only cream.”
“What type of coffee do I get if I press B-128?” said the tyro.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. B-128 is the general text alert in the case of an imminent ballistic missile strike from a hostile country. Don’t press that button unless you see bright arcs on the big screen heading right for our little island.”
“Got it. B-127 is coffee, light and sweet. B-128 is just creamer, and…”
“No, no, no. B-129 is coffee, with cream, no sugar. B-128 is an all-points warning of a nuclear explosion.”
“Fair enough. What happens if I accidentally hit B-128?”
“It’ll ask you if you are sure.”
“But doesn’t the coffee button ask me if I’m sure, too?”
“Well, yes. After all, we don’t like to waste coffee around here.”
“Why are the buttons for a beverage so close and so similar to the one that warns of a nuclear attack?”
“Budget constraints. We can’t go ordering fancy buttons for things. The public will accuse us of misappropriation. We’ll lose what little funding we have. We are facing a government shutdown as it is. And anyway, the point is moot. Just hit the right button and it won’t matter.”
“All this is making me tired. I think I’ll order a coffee.”
“Go ahead. I’ll be asleep in the custodial closet.”
More Alembics to come.


Urge Overkill

HAPPY NEW YEAR, and a very special new year at that. For anyone who is paying attention, the millennium is now eighteen years old, which means, according to most standard definitions, it is an adult. Now is the time when we tell the millennium to get its ass off the couch, and get a job, and take some responsibility for itself, and stop being such a sniveling baby, and to buck up, and whatever else we tell teenagers on the verge of adulthood.

Actually I’m not sure what the technical and legal definition of adulthood is these days, if it corresponds with some agreed age of consent, or even if there is a national standard. It may very well depend on the state, and if that is the case, then in New York the legal definition of maturity is when a girl is old enough to curse you out from a street corner while smoking. In California you are old enough when your cult leader tells you that you are. In Alabama it is like ten and up, and in Mississippi anyone that can spell ‘Mississippi’ or at least recognize the word as that thing “we all live in” is pretty much ready to operate a motor vehicle and buy lotto tickets. In Alaska you have reached manhood when you can catch a salmon in your teeth while standing in an ice cold river, and in Massachusetts it begins with the formal repudiation of the letter ‘R.’ In Kentucky it takes shape when a sibling joins the fight against the family he is a ‘feudin’ with, and in Nevada when a desperate boy with hair under his arms gets a job to help pay for his dad’s huge gambling debts. Ain’t that America, for you and me.

It’s been a great many beers and years since I was eighteen, and of the two I’m not sure which has had the more deleterious effect on my memory. I do recall, though, because it is still there, getting a tattoo when I was eighteen, because I could, and registering to vote, because even back then I was a comedian. I also stopped committing violent crimes. The system is a lot more lenient on juvenile maniacs, as it turns out.

Completely rehabilitated, I have a tradition every January 1st. I get up and go running. It’s a salutary way to start the new year. I might even go as far as to say salubrious. You know what, I will say it.

And because this past New Year’s Day was a brisk 20 degrees Fahrenheit, there was a little extra exhilaration to the whole exercise. My running route is generally the same throughout the year, so I know what to expect, but that morning I came across something in the road that was extremely puzzling. At first I thought it was some kind of wild, technicolored, conical party hat, one of those oversized absurdities that people use at New Year’s Eve parties across the country to be recognized for a kiss at midnight. I figured it had been drunkenly cast out of a moving car. It was only when I neared it that I realized what it was, and of course I should’ve known. Because of the sheer amount of gastrointestinal residue, I decided that a grizzly bear had been wandering the neighborhood and had emitted an entire winter’s worth of hibernation sustenance. In short it was the biggest pile of puke I had ever seen. Cars swerved to avoid it. Buzzards circled overhead. A county official came out and assessed it a property tax. More than anything it was a horrendous monument as to why I usually avoid New Year’s Eve, and the indulgence that tends to go with it.

Then there was a commotion on the front lawn of a nearby house, a tableau that became clear in an instant. A father who was so red with anger that he didn’t even need a coat, only a tee shirt and shorts in the freezing weather, was marching a bucket of hot water down his driveway. Behind him his sheepish daughter shuffled, also with a bucket of hot water. The daughter was blanched and shaking, the grim specter of death hovered over her. I understood. I had been there myself. She couldn’t have been older than seventeen or eighteen, a victim of the rocky seas of celebration. They walked out into the road and dumped their buckets on the offensive pile of last night’s party buffet frozen like Kilimanjaro in the middle of the street, while the father unleashed a string of furious threats on his ashen issue, who cowered in malaise and regret. It was a modern ritual, a funereal procession of cleansing being acted out in neighborhoods and villages across the world, a harsh yet necessary lesson about the whiplash of consumption. On some level, the girl had crossed the rubicon into some higher truth about living.

They paused when they saw me go trotting by, unsure of what to do or say, like I had ruined the solemnity of the occasion.
“Happy New Year,” I waved, but instead, the lyrics to the old Urge Overkill song blasted in my head.
Girl, You’ll Be a Woman….Soon
More Alembics to come