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.

Total Eclipse of the Heart, or Earth (Depending on where the ‘H’ is)

Some mysteries are tough to decipher. Like why does a ticket seller at a movie theater have to be behind three inches of bullet-proof glass? My bank teller, who has a few thousand dollars in her midst, can be grabbed with a simple lunge forward but the cashier sliding a worthless movie stub in my direction has to have more security than the pope?
Secondly, what happened to “Meatball,” my neighbor’s gregarious cat and frequent visitor to my yard whom we fear may have been devoured by coyotes. The trail, thus far, has gone cold.
Lastly, why does the moon sometimes consume, and then belch out in binger’s remorse, the entire sun?

It is this third enigma that has engulfed the city of Atlanta today as mobs of eager “Celestials” drive hellfire up to the North Georgia mountains for a brief glimpse of what is referred to as Totality, which is either the unifying oneness that connects all separate phenomena into one grand understanding, or a span of about five minutes in which it gets kinda dark, then not so much. I’m hoping that people achieve the former, yet I suspect it will end up being the latter. Instead of a total comprehension of the universal truth of things, I fear most spectators will be pissed off about all the traffic, a few people will fry their eyes out staring at the intense nimbus overhead, some suckers will pay $25 for an eclipse beer, which is a beer marked up 500% for an eclipse, and Pink Floyd will make another $20 million from their Dark Side of the Moon royalties.

Even in this age of regnant science it is nice to see people freak out over planetary rotation. Since the eclipse’s announcement I’ve talked to all manner of Neo-Mystics, who are digging into the phenomenon for the deeper meaning, or the Totality within the Totality. There is one couple who frequent the coffee shop up the block from me who plan on trying to conceive a child during Totality. It is obvious from their somewhat awkward public groping that they probably try to conceive a child when the sun rises, the sun sets, when the sun is out, when the moon is out, when the stars are out, when there are no stars, cloudy, thunderstorm, chance of showers, hot or cold. Anyhow, that is what they will be doing during Totality.
“Are you trying to birth Rosemary’s Baby?” I said.
“Who is Rosemary?” they said.
“Forget it. Good luck.”

There were a few doomsday types out in Little Five Points wearing sandwich boards encouraging me to repent for the Totality, because they had consulted some astrological charts and discovered that the Totality would last a thousand years instead of five minutes.
“Is it time for the end of the world again?” I said. “You guys get more mileage out of those sandwich boards than Trump gets from his Twitter account.”

And of course there were a few white supremacists that were boycotting the Totality because of the general blackness involved. It was all part of the grand conspiracy. The moon was in on it. They were sure of that. Lucky for them they still had their tiki torches and book burning and lack of melanin to justify their lazy form of superiority.

Yes, the birds, the bees, the lunatics and the street freaks get edgy during “syzygy,” (what a fun word! look at all those ‘y’s) but I wanted no part of it. Instead, I went to the movies. As I got into my car I noticed that “Meatball” the cat had returned, stretched out stoically in my front yard. We were worried for nothing.
There is a classic theater in the rundown and hip part of town that I drop in on from time to time. They show new releases and classic cult films. There is a filigreed series of gold lights descending systematically into the vector of an arrow pointed down toward the entrance. “This is Movie-Land!” it seems to suggest. Step into the magic and leave the world outside.

I got a ticket from the pale ghost of a woman posted in her Fort Knox-style glass booth and bought a bucket of popcorn from the man at the candy counter. He is roughly a million years old, pumping melted butter onto my popcorn with the measured concentration of Jackson Pollack creating one of his dripping masterpieces.
The usher led me to my seat. He is a militant fellow with a pencil thin mustache, a wilting bow tie, and a somewhat unsettling array of different sized flashlights attached to his utility belt. The smaller light sources, he explained to me, are for unobtrusive escorts. The larger, more blinding magnum beams are for raincoat masturbators, teenagers “necking,” and general belligerence. If everyone took their jobs this seriously the world would hum with the efficiency of a Rolls Royce engine.

I sat down in the otherwise empty theater to watch a showing of Orson Welles’s The Third Man. Two minutes into it, a fellow with a head like a prize watermelon sat down in front of me, completely obscuring 99% of the theater screen. The only part of the projection that I could see was a thin corona around the perimeter of his prodigious skull. How about that? I had witnessed the Totality after all. The man sat there for about a minute. Then, for reasons as mysterious as the universe itself, he got up slowly and chose another seat. Pleased with the eclipse, I sat back and watched Joseph Cotten search for the elusive Harry Lime.
More Alembics to come.