My Stump Speech (And How It Went Over)
Hello! Great to be here in New York City!
I see a few familiar faces down there. Hey, guys. All right. So … New York. Go, Knicks!
I didn’t come here to talk sports, ladies and gentlemen. I came here to talk about the greatest city in the world. Now, there’s been some talk lately about falling gas prices. We’re supposed to be so happy that the big-oil corporations and their buddies in Saudi Arabia are now growing hugely rich at a slightly decelerated rate. Well, I’m sorry, but that doesn’t count as good news in my book.
Who needs gas in New York City anyway? This is one of the greatest public-transportation cities in the nation. People say, “Gee, you guys must create a lot of pollution,” but are they aware that New Yorkers, per capita, produce less in the way of harmful emissions than anybody else in the whole country?
[smattering of applause]
These subways, they run under this town. You think they need gasoline? I think not, friends. I think those trains run on faith—the faith of the people right here in the greatest city in the world!
They tried to knock this city down—but we came right back up again!
It’s funny, when you think about it, what a couple of jets could do. We’re still in the fallout to this day. Well, I’m gonna deliver a message to the President: You give us what we need to make this city safe or you’ll be hearing about it from us, Mr. President—oh, yes, you will!
One of those planes followed the Hudson River, used it as a kind of path. I think of Henry Hudson all those years ago, coming up that same river. He was part of the colonial exploration of this part of the world. An exploration that left many of the indigenous peoples dead, first from disease, then from the wars arising from various misunderstandings. When you think about it, those 9/11 planes were a kind of payback, you might say.
But if there’s one thing we know from history, it’s that you can’t keep this city down! The British attacked this town in 1776, and, sure, George Washington retreated. Had to. It just seemed like a better idea to cut and run than to try to protect this town. Sort of like what George W. Bush is doing now. Well, let’s send a message to him now: You can’t cut and run this time, George!
When Osama bin Laden’s ragtag band took over those planes, they shouldn’t have had a chance. And if the Bush administration hadn’t been asleep at the switch, they wouldn’t have succeeded! Oh, no!
But they did succeed. And how. It wasn’t easy, but Osama and his men pulled it off. They had faith, you see, faith in a higher power. When you’ve got just a few men taking on a whole nation, well, I’ll tell you what, you better have a whole lot of faith. And that’s what Al Qaeda had!
And that’s what we’ve got, too! Faith. A faith that’s even … more faithful … just plain better … than Al Qaeda’s faith. So I hope you’ll be voting for me at the polls.
[one person clapping]
Thank you, New York. Thanks very much.
Very Little On My Plate
Have you heard the expression “I’ve got a lot on my plate”? You must have, because nearly everyone in the United States uses it. It’s a strange phrase, don’t you think? First of all, why a plate? The expression means “I’ve got a lot of work to do”; “I have many projects.”
But a plate is what we eat from. Who eats their work?
Secondly, why does anyone have a lot on his or her plate? Can’t one have just a few peas on one’s plate?
My plate, for example, is nearly empty.
Yesterday, I was reading Baudelaire in French—the notes at the end of Le Spleen de Paris (Paris Spleen). (This is one sign of how little is on my plate: that I have the time to read this.) These are sketches of poems Baudelaire intended to write. One note reads:
La Grande Veuve melancholique devant le Jardin de Musard.
I began to translate the phrase: “The Great Sad Widow in front of the Garden of … ”—but what was Musard?
I opened my Larousse’s French-English/English-French Dictionary to discover that musarder means “to dawdle; to idle; to dilly-dally; to fribble away one’s time.”
That’s it! I realized. That’s what I do. I fribble away my time.
(Incidentally, I looked up “fribble” in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition, and it does exist. “Fribble” means “fritter,” and its origin is unknown.)
This morning, for example, I woke up and lay in bed for 20 minutes remembering my dream. In the dream, I was a traveler in London. Evening was coming, and I had nowhere to sleep. But the English government is so liberal that it spreads a giant futon on the street for the indigent to rest upon. (The futon has a brown cover.) I walked along the length of this bed, searching for a good spot to sleep.
After remembering my dream, I continued lying in bed and wrote the following poem:
“A Sad Fact”
Then I stood up, washed my hands, went to my computer and began working on anagrams of George W. Bush’s name. I came up with:
“We rob GE’s hug”
“Wee grub hogs.”
Do you see what I mean? This is pure fribbling.
After that, I began to think about corrasable paper. Back when one typed on typewriters, there was a certain kind of paper that was easy to erase: Instead of having to rub and rub with an eraser, you just gave a little eraser flourish. This paper was called “corrasable bond.”
Suddenly I realized that the word comes from a combination of “correct” and “erasable.”
Two Jehovah’s Witnesses come to the door, and I spent an hour and a half talking to them. Did you know that science has made advances because the Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to accept blood transfusions? Now there is a bloodless surgery room in the Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie, for example. (Even open-heart surgery can be performed without transfusions!) One of the Witnesses had two knee surgeries without receiving blood, and recovered much more quickly than the other patients.1
“Blood is a foreign substance, and your body wastes a lot of energy rejecting it,” the other Witness, whose name was Joan, explained.
This teaching comes from a mystifying little quote in Acts (15: 28-9):
“For the holy spirit and we ourselves have favored adding no further burden to YOU, except these necessary things, to keep abstaining from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication. If YOU carefully keep yourselves from these things, YOU will prosper. Good health to YOU!”
(I happen to own a copy of the Jehovah’s Witness Bible, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, which certainly pleased my visitors.)
“But what did they mean by ‘blood’?” I inquired. “There were no transfusions in A.D. 60.”
“The Romans believed that by drinking the blood of slaughtered gladiators, they would grow stronger,” Joan explained. “That’s probably what Paul meant.”
But who wants to drink the blood of a loser gladiator?
After the Witnesses left, I looked up the last name in a Manhattan phone book. It is Zelmo Zzzzzip. (He lives at 1 University Place.) And the penultimate name? A. Zzyrmidgeon, at 23 Jones Street.
The first listing in the phone book is a person named only “A,” at 620 East 11th Street. The second name is also “A” (at 1 West 72nd Street, Apt. 23).
Just now, I took a break from this essay to watch the cars go by on my street. It’s raining, and a big puddle has collected. When cars drive by, water leaps out of the puddle into the air—seven feet high!
I find this bounding puddle water satisfying.
Two weeks ago, I visited Innisfree Garden in Millbrook, N.Y.—the former estate of Walter and Marion Beck. One hundred and fifty acres are devoted to Chinese-style landscapes, with several large fountains. (One sends forth a cloud of mist, creating a circular rainbow.) But I prefer the splashing puddles of East Third Street to the fountains of Innisfree. For one thing, they’re cheaper—and somehow more organic.
About a year ago, I noticed I have numerous record albums I’ve never listened to. So every day, I listen to two songs I never heard before.
This afternoon, I played Steel Band Clash (Cook 1040). (Above the title it reads: “Savage Dance Music to Awaken the Ballroom Beast.”) This record captures 16-man oil-drum orchestras recorded in Antigua in 1956: the Hell’s Gate Band, the Brute Force Steel Band and the Big Shell Steel Band. The music is radiant, humorous, polyrhythmic. For my money, it’s as good as Brahms. (The two songs I played today were “Bila El Mambo” and “Mambo No. 5.”)
Then I spent seven minutes trying to decide whether to eat a peach. It smelled sweet and was soft, but it didn’t look ripe—the skin was rather yellow.
Finally, I decided to bite. The peach was perfect.
After that, I took out a letter I’ve been saving from the American Trust for the British Library. “Dear Friend,” it began. “The British Library, one of the world’s greatest scholarly and reference sources, is home to three thousand years of the documented history of humankind. It is a wonderful world of the mind that transcends national borders—and I invite you today to become a part of it.”
Each time I read it, I feel like I am being offered a knighthood. I examined the color brochure—printed on card stock. Florence Nightingale, in her photograph, looks so cynical! And Henry Gladstone resembles an actor playing one of those peevish Dickens roles.
While I ate dinner, I perused the Daedalus Books catalog, full of cheap books I will never order.2
Did you know that British royalty kept a menagerie of animals in the Tower of London, including an elephant who drank only wine? That Lewis and Clark were deeply ambitious? That, according to the catalog, in 1899, 10 theaters—the Apollo, the Harris, the New Victory, the Lyric, the New Amsterdam, the Selwyn, the Liberty, the Times Square, the Rialto and the Empire—opened on West 42nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue?
So goes my nearly empty-plate day. Someday I’d love to visit le Jardin de Musard—the Garden of Time-Fribbling.
1To get their DVD, Transfusion Alternatives—Documentary Series, call your local Kingdom Hall or write: Watchtower, 25 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11201-2483.
2www.salebooks.com or 800-395-2665.