The Girl In The Cake

[Today’s post is sponsored by my dear friend and colleague, Oreana Harless LCSW, inarguably the best social worker in all of Idaho. She tells me she like Vegas, she likes kitsch, she likes history, and she likes to eat. Therefore, this tale seems a natural to dedicate to her]

When one thinks about it, having a grown woman jump out of a baked pastry is rather odd. Where did this practice originate?

As with most things decadent, we have the Romans to thank, although they merely got this ball rolling, and future generations of lecherous males perfected it. To the Romans, food WAS entertainment. Wealthy hosts tried to outdo one another with exotic fare: peacocks, ostriches, and rare songbirds were oft on the menus. Then, someone thought up the idea of stuffing one entree inside another, and the fad caught on. A host might carve the belly of a beef only to reveal an entire roasted pig inside. Petronius wrote of dishes that were staged to make the animals appear that they were still alive: baked fish arranged to be swimming in a sea of sauce, for example, or a roasted rabbit with a fowl’s wings attached to appear as Pegasus taking flight.

With the passage of the Roman Empire, the wealthy of medieval times and the Renaissance kept up the practice. Peacocks grilled and then adorned in their original plumage. Fried roosters decked out in (thin paper) armor doing battle with equally cooked suckling pigs. You get the grotesque picture.

Having to always up the ante, eventually it was decided to use live animals. An Italian cookbook from 1474 had one Maestro Martino explaining how to make a hole in the bottom of a pie’s crust such that

“some live birds, as many as it will hold [can be put inside], and the birds should be placed in it just before it is to be served; and when it is served before those seated at the banquet, you remove the cover above, and the little birds will fly away. This is done to entertain and amuse your company.”

Robert May, author of a 1660 British cookbook, describes how these birds would tend to flap everywhere, creating “a diverting hurley-burley amongst the guests.”

[sidebar: this trend may have inspired the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” in which four-and-twenty blackbirds are presented in a dish to the king]

[sidebar: today, this practice lives in the form of “pie birds,” diminutive ceramic figurines placed in pies to allow steam to escape]

Once again, in keeping up with the Joneses, in 1626, the Duke and Duchess of Buckingham presented Charles I with a pie from which emerged a dwarf.

You see where we’re going with this, don’t you?

Depending on the social mores of the age – think Stuart Restoration, think pre-Victorian Hanoverians, think Edward VII, think the Roaring Twenties – attractive women began to replace mere birds and dwarfs, not surprisingly as such banquets were thrown by rich males for other rich males, all of the dutiful wives staying at home. One particularly debauched party was thrown by Stanford White, a prominent NYC architect, in 1895. His enormous pie contained a nearly-naked 16 year old beauty, one Susie Johnson, much to the delight of the diners. This is now known to history as the Pie Girl Dinner… go ahead, Google it. I’ll wait.

[sidebar: White’s excesses were the eventual end of him, since he was murdered by the enraged spouse of a former pie girl – White, you see, apparently performed this schtick more than once. The fact that White had deflowered the maiden before putting her in a pie didn’t help his case with said enraged spouse]

By the 1950s, it became downright mainstream for office blow-outs and alcohol-fueled conventions to feature an attractive woman in a giant cake, usually in a skimpy bathing suit or completely nude, depending on the audience and event. The girl-in-cake trend became so pervasive that it was even featured in Marilyn Monroe’s landmark 1959 film Some Like It Hot.

And while a few still made actual cakes – one 1975 AP story said that a baker in San Francisco would create just such a confection for $2000, plus $50 for the jumper – it became cheaper and more convenient to fabricate a ‘cake’ out of cardboard.

Political correctness, media coverage, and shareholder oversight sounded the death-knell of such festive gatherings in business venues, surviving today mostly by the patronage of denizens of the Vegas bachelor party scene.

I just wish I could expunge from my memory the visual of James Franco and Seth Rogen popping out of a cake to celebrate Jimmy Fallon’s birthday. Yuck.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Clowns After Midnight

[Our day-sponsor for this post is arguably my youngest subscriber, Lucas Artigas, of Apex NC. Lucas, don’t read this when you should be paying attention in class. I know it’s been rough these past four months, but it’ll get better. If not, the motel might need a manager. Stay in touch.]

“There is nothing scarier than a clown after midnight”

That quote has been attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen King, and Vincent Price. Regardless of the source of the bon mot, it reveals a truism. Clowns, in the dark, tend to be disturbing.

And of course, we all know that cemeteries, in particular old spooky ones, give just about everyone the willies.

So let’s combine them on your next roadtrip, in Tonopah NV.

Little more than a widespot on SR 95 at the halfway point between Vegas and Reno, Tonopah, the seat of Nye County, boasts a population under 2500. The town itself, then called Butler City, was founded in 1900 by the eponymous Jim Butler, a miner looking for a lost burro. Angry at the dumb beast, he picked up a rock to throw at it once located, and noticed the unusual weight of the projectile. It turns out that he had stumbled across the second richest silver lode in Nevada history. But it was not Butler who was to strike it fabulously wealthy. One George Wingfield, a faro player briefly turned dealer at the hamlet’s soon-to-open saloon, used his winnings to invest in the Boston-Tonopah Mining Company, which, within five years, netted him a bank account of $30M.

Fortune seekers flooded into this hardscrabble town in the middle of nowhere. There was a plague that went through the population in 1902 – the etiology remains mysterious – which killed many of the inhabitants. The town’s only cemetery filled quickly, and by 1911, it had over 300 interments, then-rivaling the living population of the downtown. The boneyard was closed because it had run out of space.

Wingfield predicted the town’s imminent demise, cashed out, and moved elsewhere. Industry died. By 1920, Tonopah and the immediate environs contained less than half the population it had boasted fifteen years earlier. Things went from bad to worse. Unless you work at the now-nearby Tonopah Test Range and Nuclear Site, there’s not much economic activity in the area once the easily mined ore had dried up.

But people do need a place to stay when passing through, esp if they don’t want to drive another 70 miles to the next wide spot. And that brings us to the Clown Motel.

The Clown Motel

Not only is the inn’s lobby filled with images of clowns, but each room keeps the unsettling theme as well. From Bozo to Ronald to Punch, they’re all there in one form or another. And folks who have weathered the night as guests swear that the eyes of the pictures and figures follow you as you move around the premises.

what a view!

So if you get a bit unnerved and need fresh air, you can walk outside… and gaze at the overflowing cemetery sharing the common property line.

Oddly enough, the Clown Motel gets a 3.5/ 5 star rating on Trip Advisor.

Time to keep driving to Carson City.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Coins Hitting The Pans

My earliest recollections of slot machines – not that I was actually playing them back then, mind you – involved lights flashing, sirens wailing, and the delightful sound of clink-clink-clink as coins dropped into the metallic catch pans below. From Vegas to Atlantic City to cruise ships, it was the same. Even if the actual dollar amounts weren’t princely, it sure sounded that way.

But then technology interfered.

There are just under 1,000,000 licensed slot machines in operation in the United States at present, and hardly any of them spit out coins anymore. Things changed in the 1990s. Now, you insert your club card or paper bills into a machine’s feeder. When you win, the machine still makes noise – sometimes even poorly-simulated recorded metallic clanking sounds – but out comes a slip on which is a barcode, and that is what you take to the cashier’s cage to redeem for real money.

No more buckets full of quarters. No more dirty hands. It’s all so sterile and lifeless.

In the 1990s, technology abbreviated as ‘TITO,’ or ‘ticket in ticket out,’ became widely available. It’s not that the casinos were necessarily killjoys, but TITO allowed them to cut down on the manpower needed to run their businesses. Apparently it takes a lot of staff to keep the change machines filled, keep the slots stocked (the average quarter machine, for example, holds $1k worth of coins at any given time), and then fix the machines when the inevitable jams occur. When it all changed over to paper – card/bill in and slip out – far fewer staff were needed, helping the casinos’ bottom lines.

Indeed, the migration away from coin machines was motivated by reasons even beyond mere maintenance and having to stock change on the casino floors and back rooms. From a casino’s point of view, the key to successful slot play is to separate the player from his money as efficiently as possible. So when a gambler inserts a $20 bill into today’s slots, the money buys “credits.” The gambler is now playing with (emotionless) numerical credits, just numbers on a screen, and not hard-earned cash. And there’s less incentive for one to cash out when a win is registered because that player ends up with a piece of paper in hand, not money. Sure, the paper can be taken to the cashier’s cage. But it’s much easier to just insert it in another machine and play until it’s all gone. Casinos like that.

It’s unlikely that TITO will be rolled back in favor of coins on a large scale. The current system is just too convenient for both casinos and hardcore gamblers. But, as Mike Spinetti, owner of a Vegas gambling supply house, recently offered, “a certain segment of the population still loves playing the old slots; they’ve really had a resurgence in the past couple of years.”

So, the last time I was in Vegas, I spoke to locals and went on a search to see if there even were any coin operated machines left in the area.

None of the high-profile casinos on the Strip could be bothered with them. The only place on that famous boulevard that still has coin machines is Slots-A-Million, owned by and adjacent to (the decidedly run down and dated) Circus Circus. This place needs a good steam cleaning, and even a nostalgia hound such as myself was turned-off, clanking $1 and 25c coin machines or not.

Moving toward Fremont Street, The D Casino has a so-called Vintage Room on the second floor that has a number of coin-ops still in operation. The Golden Gate also has a smattering of the older machines, though none that date as far back as its founding in 1906. Sadly, Bugsy Siegel’s former place a couple of blocks away, El Cortez, claims to have antique coin-ops on site, but in actuality has them on display in the lobby, and when I was last there, none were functional.

Traveling further from town, the Eastside Cannery Casino, past McCarran International Airport and the I-515 connector, was the first establishment to bring back the coin-op machines following the widespread introduction of TITO, and twenty years later there are still a few on the premises.

And for the adventuresome who are traveling out-of-state, 30 miles south of the Strip in the middle of the desert on I-15 is the wide-spot/ rest stop town of Jean. This is the home of the Gold Strike Casino (as well as the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car exhibit) and not much else. However, over half of the 400 machines at the Gold Strike are of the paperless variety.

So yes, with a little effort, one can still find a slot into which to drop a coin in southern Nevada. If readers know of any other places, please let me know.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Let’s Do The Time Warp Again!

When I was a pre-teen, I went to Disneyland and enjoyed an attraction called Mr Toad’s Wild Ride. I thought it was the most amazing thing ever. The little cars in which visitors sat careened left and right through narrow faux-Victorian streets whilst barely missing lamp posts, carriages, curbs, suits of armor, and other obstacles. It was fast-paced, frenetic, and thoroughly enjoyable. I must have ridden it a dozen times over the days my family was at the Magic Kingdom, and I remember desperately wanting to go back almost as soon as I had returned home.

I didn’t get a chance to return to southern California until the last year of medical school, probably 15 years after the initial visit. I couldn’t wait to see Mr Toad after all that time! But when I got there, everything seemed smaller and less impressive than before. The ride was slower, more sophomoric, and less exciting than I remembered. After disembarking, I had no desire to repeat, and I found myself wondering why I had been so taken by it in the first place.

Welcome to the ‘You Can Never Go Back’ phenom.

When I was a freshman in college, I was invited in my first weeks to go to a midnight movie by dorm friends, one of whom had a car at his disposal. I asked what we were going to see, and was told The Rocky Horror Picture Show, then a flick only four years old. I had never heard of this movie, but I knew that anything that involved 1. leaving campus at night, 2. driving somewhere strange, and 3. seeing a purportedly hip and experimental film was something I did not want to miss.

For those of you who may not know, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (RHPS) is an Anglo-American movie released in 1975 and based on the London musical stage production of essentially the same name from several years earlier. It was designed as both a parody and a tribute to Hollywood’s grade-B science fiction and horror films of the 1930s through 1960s. In essence, it is a very loose retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, except that the (androgynous) scientist who animates the monster Rocky is actually an alien transvestite, and Rocky is to be his adult plaything. The film contains much allusion to non-hetero sex and violence. There is cannibalism, there is oiled skin, there is S/M leather, and there are oddly costumed characters of dubious gender throughout.

Think Halloween meets La Cage Aux Folles

Despite its catchy soundtrack, the movie was critically panned on release, though Rotten Tomatoes gave it a surprising 80%. Its original eight-city U.S. release was quickly scaled back because of very small audiences. However, the following year, it was decided to try RHPS as a midnight movie at select theaters, the first being the Waverly Cinema in NYC. Quickly it became a campy cult classic amongst the costumed fans who took to acting out scenes in the aisles and yelling back at the screen with comic/ vulgar commentary. RHPS is to this day the longest-running theatrical release in movie history, never having been pulled by Twentieth Century Fox over more than four decades. Against all odds, it was even selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion on the National Film Registry – those works deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” – in 2005.

[sidebar: the Library of Congress ‘honor’ aside, I’m certain that then-unknowns in the film who became bigger stars in later years – think Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, and Meatloaf – would prefer that modern audiences basically forget that they appeared in RHPS]

Anyway, my dorm friends and I drove from tiny Williamsburg to larger Newport News to attend the show. As I wasn’t driving, I did partake of adult beverages on the trip, so was not entirely of sober demeanor during the screening. To be honest, I don’t even recall the ending from that first experience, as I nodded off sometime after Riff Raff started engaging in elbow sex. But it didn’t matter. The movie was so shocking, so kitschy, so non-conservative! This, I thought, is what it means to be in college and experiencing things so radical!

[sidebar: it’s funny the things one does remember. The girl sitting in the backseat with me on the trip was a punk rocker named Cindy, and the driver was a fellow named George – I rarely saw them afterward. The stereo was playing Golden Earring’s Radar Love. Why those factoids remain with me decades later is a mystery]

As with Mr Toad, one recent Saturday night I decided to go see RHPS at midnight just for old times’ sake, at an indy theater in downtown Tucson that is said to be the flick’s longest running venue in Arizona (1978). The difference, of course, is that I was entirely sober, married, graying, and 36 years older this time around.

I was planning to write a commentary on the movie itself, but driving home at 2:30 a.m. and thinking back on the two hours just passed, nothing particularly insightful came to me. I felt, if anything, curmudgeonly. The movie sets looked cheap. The costumes, while flamboyant in their day, were nothing compared to modern Mardi Gras. The subject matter was a yawn. The dialogue was dumb. The story was contrived. And the cavorting audience members and their running commentary in the theater were immature and goofy. That about sums it up.

In retrospect, the scourge of AIDS opened the door and brought into public discourse subjects that were never mentioned in the mass media prior to the epidemic; discussions of gay marriage, internet porn, gender-reassignment surgery, and public bathroom access and LGBTQ rights appear in print today in ways never imagined when Jimmy Carter resided in the White House. And just as a 21st century denizen viewing formerly ‘racy’ Victorian swimwear might instead see such attire as now more suitable for matronly bathers, topics that were taboo pre-AIDS are no longer viewed by most as forbidden subjects of conversation.

Predictably, with that change in societal mores did RHPS lose some of the creative campiness that made it so unique and naughty.

As I noted, you can never go back.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

The Primordial Hackers

Anyone above the age of 40 should remember Max Headroom, the fictional British ad-pitchman (New Coke, anyone?) who was the world’s first computer-generated TV host. He was said to have been modeled after the insincere and egotistical media talking heads of the day, in particular the smarmy Ted Baxter role from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. His stuttering electronic cadence made his voice instantly recognizable to viewers worldwide. He was such a pop success that the year following his TV debut, he even appeared in a now-forgettable film feature, 20 Minutes Into The Future.

Max

Max

[sidebar: computer graphics were not very advanced in 1984 when he debuted, so the ‘cyber host’ was actually portrayed by an actor in prosthetic makeup, a fiberglass suit, Ray Bans, and hand drawn backdrops]

[sidebar: the character’s name came from the supposed last thing that his consciousness saw before the fatal car wreck that claimed his corporeal self: “Max. Headroom: 2.3 meters” suspended across a tunnel entrance]

Max, however, had greater fame awaiting him: his role in the first documented hack of the computer age.

At 9:14 p.m. on 22 November 1987, the regularly scheduled programming at Chicago’s WGN was interrupted, and instead appeared on the screen a person wearing a mask in front of a non-descript retro-futuristic looking metallic backdrop. He strongly resembled Max, coming to haunt from the dystopian future. It was brief and silent. WGN technicians quickly switched back to the local news. But two hours later, during a broadcast of Dr Who, cross-town WTTW-11 experienced an identical break in service. On came the same figure, but this time there was an audio feed of largely unintelligible cackling, some mumbled threats to Chuck Swirsky (an area sportscaster), and the hummed theme song of a well-known cartoon series. The masked figure then mooned the audience, and a mysterious woman appeared who was trying to smack an airborne insect with a flyswatter. This went on for 90 seconds before regularly scheduled service was resumed.

In 2010, a Reddit user by the handle of Bpoag provided some add’n information. He claimed to have been part of a phreaking cell operating in the Chicago suburb of LaGrange in the late 1980s (phreaking was the slang term used at the time for those who could manipulate telephone networks and the systems that depended on them… in other words, the precursors of today’s internet hackers). Bpoag claimed to have been warned by two other members of the group – named J and K – to watch the TV on the evening of 22 November “for something big.” He did, and immediately recognized the handiwork of his fellow phreakers.

According to Bpoag, the actual hack was simple enough to accomplish, and didn’t require any advanced technical equipment beyond what an avid phreaker would already have had in his arsenal. He opined, “all that had to be done was to provide a signal to the satellite dish that was of a greater power than the legitimate one.”

Bpoag likened the stunt to a public service announcement: “it only lasted as long as it needed to get the point across, that point being that the airwaves were woefully unprotected, and easily exploitable.”

The feds were not amused and launched an investigation. But after almost three decades, the actual identities of the hackers have never been determined. But they no doubt foretold what would later become, for pranksters, governments, protesters, activists, and terrorists alike, a global and likely permanent phenomenon.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Grown-Up Toys and the Uber-Wealthy

On April 18th, 2014, a gun said to have been used by Wyatt Earp during the famous shootout at (actually near) the O.K. Corral sold through a Scottsdale Arizona auction house for the princely sum of $225,000, well above its pre-event estimate of ‘only’ $100,000 to $150,000.

Note that I said, “said to have been used.”

Wealthy aficionados always run up auction prices for the rare and unusual. Anything with a purported Earp or Old West provenance is certain to bring big money.

[sidebar: speaking of gunslingers in general, see my earlier post on the sale of the pistol of Bonnie Parker – of Bonnie and Clyde fame – at http://alienistscompendium.com/hybristophilia/]

A well-heeled collector from New Mexico, who was absentee-battling over the phone, placed the winning bid for the .45 Colt single action army revolver, the so-called Peacemaker model known from every western movie ever filmed. The Colt in question came from the estate of the late Glenn Boyer, an author of several books on Earp who collected Earpabilia until his death in 2013.

Peacemaker

Peacemaker

The gunfight near O.K. was actually a small event in a time and place known for not-infrequent barroom brawls and the public brandishing of weaponry. It really wasn’t until 1930 – the year after the subject died – when Stuart Lake published the then-definitive biography of Earp that the gunfight began to assume mythical proportions.

[sidebar: the gunfight wasn’t the only thing that experienced an apotheosis; Earp too became a larger-than-life lawman thanks to Lake and, later, Hollywood, despite evidence that strongly suggests that he was an opportunistic con-man, pimp, and horse thief who skirted both the spirit and letter of the law more than once in his life]

In other words, a small law enforcement action in a backward town in desolate southern Arizona probably wouldn’t have drawn much notice at the time… and it’s uncertain if anyone would have actually paid attention to the weapons used in the immediate aftermath.

And predictably, its sale price notwithstanding, there exists some controversy about that auctioned Colt.

For one, the revolver appears to have had its grips and cylinder replaced, and the serial numbers rubbed off.

There was suspicion that Boyer tweaked the history in his tome to magnify the value of a gun already in his possession.

And further, two other academics, D.K. Boorman and Joseph Rosa, in their respective works, stated unequivocally that Earp carried a Smith & Wesson Model 3, and not a Colt single action army, at the O.K. Corral. Even biographer Lake, who actually interviewed his subject, noted that Earp “preferred” the Smith & Wesson, though he was silent on whether that preference translated into possession on the fateful day in October 1881.

S&W Model 3

S&W Model 3

[sidebar: if true, Earp kept good company, as Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, Pat Garrett, Teddy Roosevelt, and Billy the Kid were all said to prefer the Smith & Wesson model as well]

So why the outrageous price with so much uncertainty? Is there more to the gun than is immediately apparent? Or might such uber-wealthy buyers be more interested in (unsubstantiated) bragging rights than in the decidedly non-glamourous research that should invariably accompany such relics.

No word yet on any buyer’s remorse.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Addendum, but this time involving old wine: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/09/03/the-jefferson-bottles

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

[From The Medical Records Dept] Kakorrhaphiophobia

[Originally published two years ago, I have reposted and added an addendum from this weekend past]

Psychological literature classifies kakorrhaphiophobia broadly as the ‘abnormal fear of failure,’ but it takes many nuanced forms. It can be seen in the pursuit of relationships, especially first dates. It sometimes rears its head in job interviews and requests for raises or promotions. It may prove the bane of academic pursuits. And in the entrepreneurial world, its presence can render one a hopeless fundraiser, a useless solicitor, or a wholly inept seller of Girl Scout cookies or encyclopedias.

In more serious cases, it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. Those afflicted can be insecure, less-assertive, and easily manipulated due to the pathological desire to please and avoid conflict. The feared failure is, in fact, the usual outcome. Consequently, severe kakorrhaphiophobia can be crippling regarding even simple life activities.

I suffer, but in my case, it’s nothing that serious; it’s more an annoyance, stemming from my intense dislike of retail negotiating – haggling or bartering, if you will – and the desire to avoid looking foolish and being duped in the process. As a matter of fact, the only such ‘negotiating’ I enjoy is that of Priceline.com or eBay’s ‘Make an Offer,’ probably because they’re anonymous and done online – with no face-saving needed in such a venue.

I am the sort who detests buying new cars, making offers directly to owners at estate sales, or visiting native bazaars in Third World countries. I just want to learn the cost and then figure out if I can afford the item or not. I’ve been known to pay the damned price just ‘to make it all go away.’ No theatrics. No gamesmanship. Just the facts, ma’am.

My late father, who enjoyed what I deem tortuous, is spinning in his grave. Thus, imagine my chagrin at feeling as though I wear a sign, visible to all but me, that boldly proclaims, ‘Easy Mark.’

Case in point: my second child recently turned 18, and I promised her a father-daughter trip somewhere as a belated celebration. She was excited for a long weekend jaunt to NYC, complete with a Broadway show and all of the usual tourist activities.

Then she dropped the bomb: “I want to look for some knock-off designer stuff!”

I could see it coming.

The recent Saturday afternoon in question found the two of us near Mulberry and Canal Streets in lower Manhattan. We enjoyed a delicious sushi lunch and then spent time wandering up and down the avenues looking at the exotic wares, tourist schlock, and – more interesting for me as a psychiatrist – the humanity flocking the area. But paradoxically, there wasn’t a single brand-name rip-off to be seen anywhere.

I’ve spent time in Italy in years past, and I recall the Senegalese street merchants in both Florence and Rome with their counterfeit goods spread on the sidewalk on blankets (to make it easier to pack up and depart quickly when lookouts announced the approach of the Carabinieri). These hucksters were totally out-in-the-open until the cops arrived. One didn’t have to go looking in Italy, as they always found you. In droves.

But apparently that’s not so in this part of NYC. Everyone appeared – dare I say? – above-board.

I don’t consider myself naïve re: human nature, especially given two decades in penal and related forensic circles. But it took my college-age daughter – who had never been to Manhattan before – to opine the obvious:

“Maybe we have to ask someone for it?”

That seems reasonable in retrospect, but I was still remembering Italy and didn’t think any New York shopkeepers would say, “What’s that? You want some of my illegal stuff? Well, right this way….”

Nevertheless, my daughter boldly approached the closest merchant while I hung back. She asked him something. His eyes darted around. He answered her. I couldn’t hear their words, but he gestured for her to follow him. I quickly hurried to catch up, not wanting to lose her in the labyrinthine alleyways as she disappeared from sight.

The three of us snaked our way through the narrow streets for several blocks and then entered a second shop, at which time words were exchanged in a hushed foreign tongue. Quickly a large laminated card was produced. It was folded in half lengthwise and had pictures on it. From a few yards’ distance, it looked like a restaurant menu, while on closer examination, it displayed color photos of numerous ‘designer’ goods, all grouped by (purported) manufacturer, and all fake as a $3 bill.

Vuitton

Vuitton

Our guide into the seamy underbelly of retail then told us that the items were kept off-site, but we could choose a few and he would go and get them for our examination.

My daughter was delighted with the options, and pointed to two Louis Vuitton handbags. The slippery dude nodded and disappeared out the door. He was gone for at least ten minutes while we cooled our heels. Finally, carrying a non-descript shopping bag, he reappeared and gestured for us to approach. I went to peer inside the bag and lift out the contents, but he quickly grasped my arm and pulled me closer behind the counter – apparently he thought the bag was still visible from the door and he didn’t want passers-by to see what was being shown.

Inside were two lovely Vuitton-looking bags. They were surprisingly well-constructed. The metal grommets and small bits of hardware were heavy and nicely formed. The interior was lined with fabric and leather of the appropriate style, and all of the trademarks were in place. The bags were wrapped in Vuitton tissue. Even the paper tags that were attached to each item were written in French and looked entirely correct.

My spawn didn’t appear disturbed by potential ethical or legal issues in the least. Like a true consumer, she immediately attached to the brown one, at which time I asked the seller the price.

He quoted X. I countered with Y (in cash). He parried with X-$30. I suggested Y+$10. He shook his head gravely and offered X-$40. I caved and said okay. For me, making two counter-offers during a negotiation was about the limit of my tolerance, and besides, the bag appeared of above-average quality and my daughter really liked it. I wasn’t about to quibble (or was it merely my kakorrhaphiophobia kicking in?)

Still, poor girl, she violated the primary tenet of such transactions before the hour was up. Even I knew better than that.

Riding back to our mid-town hotel on the 6-train, we were talking about our afternoon when an Irish couple standing near us overheard the conversation. They gestured to a bag the woman was carrying – a Michael Kors, apparently one recently obtained and of dubious provenance. Broad and knowing smiles were exchanged along with some shouted pleasantries over the background din of screeching rails as we hurtled through the dark tunnels.

And then, as only Europeans and ill-bred Americans can do, they asked the question: “what did you pay for it?”

Before I could deflect, my excited companion blurted out X-$40.

The Irish couple looked surprised and quoted a price almost half of our figure. Granted, theirs was a mere Kors, but the message was unmistakable.

“You were had.”

I am now looking for kakorrhaphiophobic support groups in the area.

– – – – – –

Predictably, my youngest daughter, Anna Maria, decided that she, too, wanted to go to NYC to experience the Big Apple… and find some knock-off designer haute couture and accessories. To be fair, we headed to Manhattan this weekend past to have a three-day stint of Broadway, museums, and support of illegal trademark infringement, two years to the week since my last delve into the dark side.

She worried all the way on the plane: “what if we can’t find anything there? I mean, Suzanne seemed to know where to go, but what if there’s nothing for us to purchase?”

I assured her that, as Newcastle is to coals and Eskimos are to ice cubes, we would find that for which she was looking.

We landed at LaGuardia, took a shuttle to our hotel in Times Square, and then hailed a taxi to Canal Street to get some good Chinese food for lunch and scratch AM’s itch.

As we were disembarking from the cab, I turned to pay the driver, and an elderly Asian woman approached AM and said, “you like Chanel?”

AM turned to me with a look both incredulous and confused.

“Talk to her.”

“Do you have any Louis Vuitton?”

“Of course.”

Photographs were produced on the street corner before I had even completed tipping our cabbie. A purse was selected, and out of a doorway materialized the product, wrapped naturellement in plain brown paper.

AM was delighted. But Suzanne was annoyed when she heard of this later.

“I had to work hard to find mine. AM didn’t have to do anything.”

I guess business is slow in Chinatown these days.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Dial Z For Zombies

[today’s post is sponsored by Lisa S. Kaplan RN, the best nurse practitioner with whom I’ve ever had the pleasure to work. As she is also skilled in those aspects of the time-space continuum not of this plane, what follows seems an appropriate article to which to affix her name… ]

“The Zombies Are After Brains. Don’t Worry, You’re Safe”
~seen recently on a coffee mug at the office

bon apetite!

bon apetite!

Ask any teen, or horror movie aficionado, and they’ll tell you that zombies of modern western pop culture – not those of Caribbean or African folklore – eat brains. Why that is odd is because the cinematic masterpiece that jumpstarted the whole modern zombie craze, George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968), makes no mention of brain-eating. As a matter of fact, none of Romero’s six ‘Of The Dead’ films do.

So from where did this near-diagnostic facet of zombie behavior arise?

When asked, even Romero didn’t know. In a 2010 interview with Vanity Fair, he noted, “whenever I sign autographs, they always ask me [to write], ‘Eat Brains!’ I don’t understand…. I’ve never had a zombie eat a brain. But it’s become this landmark thing.”

He went on to say that while his zombies do feast on flesh in general, he is amused that people even care about the specifics of it all (i.e., if they actually have favorite body parts or cuts of human meat). He closed by asking rhetorically if the next question will be, “do zombies shit?”

Turning back the clock, mention of brain-eating didn’t first appear, and then only fleetingly, until Return Of The Living Dead (1985). You’re forgiven if you thought that Romero had a hand in that film, but he didn’t. You see, like an amicable marital divorce, when Romero and his erstwhile collaborator John Russo parted ways in the 1970s on good terms, they agreed that all subsequent releases with ‘Living Dead’ in the title would be Russo’s, while those ‘Of The Dead’ belonged to Romero.

[sidebar: the two split over their differences re: zombies. Romero’s can be killed, whereas Russo felt that his should be essentially immortal]

So that 1985 release was Russo’s. Fans asked him about it vis a vis brain-eating.

He professed ignorance too about the etiology of the whole cerebrum schtick.

But his chief writer and director, Dan O’Bannon, once made a flip comment – one that would have unforeseen cultural consequences – that zombies probably eat brains to “ease their pain.” This was seconded by Bill Stout, the production designer of the 1985 film, who, when ambushed by interviewers, said that such an explanation “made sense” to him. Those with way too much time on their hands took these clues and offered that zombies are merely trying to boost their serotonin levels to produce the desired analgesia, and brains are a great source of that particular neurotransmitter.

Romero has expressed surprise/ amusement at the attention to such zombie detail, especially as he has noted repeatedly that the focus of his movies was always on us, and how we react to the zombies, not on the zombies themselves. He has frequently criticized those who “take it all too seriously.”

And although the definitive answer may never be known, it has been suggested by film and TV critics that neither O’Bannon nor Stout are directly responsible for the focused brain-eating craze. Paradoxically, Matt Groening of The Simpsons may have earned the honor of popularizing what is now universally held. And Groening ain’t talking.

You see, in his 1992 Halloween classic, Dial Z For Zombies (itself a parody of Return of the Living Dead), Groening had his cartoon zombies eat brains, perhaps as a nod to Russo, et al., or perhaps for entirely silly and comedic effect. But as Matthew Belinki of OverThinkingIt.com has since opined, “millions of kids saw [Dial Z For Zombies] before they were old enough to see a real zombie film. I suspect that for a whole generation, [the cartoon] was the first zombie story [they] ever saw. And that, my friends, is why we think that zombies eat brains, even though most of us have never seen a movie where this is actually the case.”

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

The Mojave Phone Booth

Just as my generation never knew of the automat except in cultural history books, the current crop of young adults likely has no first-hand experience with public coin-operated telephones. Given that cellphones are ubiquitous, who now would ever need to drive around town looking for [one of the very few extant] coin-op examples on which to make a call? Were it not for Maxwell Smart reruns, Bill & Ted, retro Superman comics, and Dr Who, I doubt anyone younger than 40 would even know that payphones and their booths once existed @ drug stores, bus stations, libraries, and street corners nationwide.

As I prepare for my own relocation to a far-away desert location in coming months, two observations are unavoidable. First, truth really is stranger than fiction. And second, the American Southwest is a very odd place.

the Mojave Phone Booth

the Mojave Phone Booth

Enter the Mojave phone booth.

California instituted a network of what were called ‘policy stations’ after WWII in an attempt to bring infrastructure – in this case, telephone service – to remote parts of the state. A public phone booth was installed in 1948 not far from the Cima Cinder Mine in eastern San Bernadino County. This was done at the behest of one Emerson Ray, owner of the mine, in order to provide payphone service to the (very few) local employees in the area. The phone booth was located at the intersection of two remote dirt roads – 35° 16′ 40” North, 115° 43′ 53” West, to be exact – eight miles from the nearest pavement, and fifteen miles from the nearest numbered road.

At first, the phone inside the booth was a hand-cranked magneto, but that was replaced by a rotary coin-op in the 1960s, and then a touch-tone model in the 1970s.

The only problem? The mine closed.

The phone and booth remained.

In the late 1990s, the nascent Internet took notice of the isolated booth, located inside what had since become the Mojave National Preserve. A hiker from Los Angeles spied a ‘telephone icon’ on his map of the expanse and, in disbelief, decided to visit the site. Yes, there it was. He made note of the phone’s number, and when he got back to LA, wrote an article for an underground paper telling of his adventure and publishing the number. Before long, a reader created a website dedicated to the phone, and soon fans were calling the number. Others went to see the phone and to answer any incoming calls; a reporter from the Los Angeles Times visited and found a man camped there who had been at the site for a month and had answered over 500 incomings, including one from an individual who identified himself as “Sergeant Zeno at the Pentagon.”

The booth, in the middle of nowhere, became covered in graffiti, and detritus of the visitors from all around the world littered the site. Its days were numbered. PacBell removed it on 17 May 2000 at the request of the National Park Service, largely because of vocal environmentalists unhappy with the effects of all of the increased traffic.

PacBell is said to have destroyed the booth. A headstone-like plaque was installed on the empty site, but that was later removed by the park service as well… but not before an eponymous indy rock back, short film (Dead Line), documentary (Mojave Mirage), full-length movie (Mojave Phone Booth), and extensive coverage by National Public Radio guaranteed the phone’s pop-cultural apotheosis.

All is not lost. The phone booth’s number is no longer owned by PacBell, instead having been acquired by a small regional provider. And that number now rings into a conference call, sometimes. The idea is that strangers can once again connect just as when the phone booth was still active. But if there is no one else on the line, it’s often just static.

BTW, the number is (760) 733-9969. And if you get through, ask for Sergeant Zeno.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Anno Domini

For Christians, December 25th by tradition marks the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and therefore the start of a new year in their calendar.

[sidebar: that the Western new year actually begins a week after Christmas goes back to Julius Caesar and, by necessity of length, will be fodder for another post]

From where, then, do we get ‘BC’ (‘Before Christ’), ‘BCE/CE’ (‘Before/Common Era’), and ‘AD’ (Anno Domini, or ‘In The Year Of Our Lord’)? That’s not as simple a question as it may seem; no one in what would later come to be known as, say, 10 AD called the year thus, since Jesus was by then merely an unknown pre-adolescent in Judea.

The Christian calendar got off to a rocky start as the society from which it sprang, that of the Romans, measured the passage of time from pagan emperors and events. There were two competing Roman calendars, that of Anno Mundi (‘In The Year Of The World’) which counted from the founding of Rome (753 BC), and later that of Anno Diocletiani, created by its namesake (244-311 AD), which narcissistically measured time from his ascension to the purple robe.

Diocletian fomented numerous persecutions of Christians. He particularly enjoyed Damnatio ad Bestias, what the Romans called the amusement of throwing Jesus’ followers to the wild animals. Little wonder, then, that those potentially facing the lions didn’t want to measure the passage of their lives in reference to the man who so hated them.

Fast forward several centuries. Christians, along with everyone else, had been forced by lack of reasonable alternative to use the calendar of Diocletian. For a while, some tried to employ an Anno Adami system (‘In The Year Of Adam’), but it was confusing, impossible to accurately measure, and never caught on. In 525 AD, though, a monk, Dionysius of Scythia Minor (Romania), was tasked with creating a liturgical table to determine on what dates Easter was to occur in subsequent years.

[sidebar: recall that Easter is the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox, which is why it changes every year]

Dionysius decided to be rid of all association with the Christian-hating Diocletian once and for all. He is the first author of whom we know whose extant work measured time from Jesus’ birth. He listed the first year of his table as 532 Anno Domini; why he didn’t use 525 AD is unclear, but as modern scholars believe that Jesus was actually born sometime between 6 BC and 4BC, not in 1 AD, Dionysius wasn’t actually far off.

But the Anno Domini system didn’t catch fire until after the Venerable Bede authored The Ecclesiastical History Of The English Peoples (731 AD), and used it throughout his discourse. Bede’s writings were also notable for introducing the concept of ‘BC’ (what he called Ante Incarnationis Dominicae, or ‘Before The Time Of The Lord’s Incarnation’) and setting 1 BC to have been the year immediately prior to 1 AD, ignoring any potential Year Zero.

After Bede’s landmark tome, both Emperor Charlemagne (742-814 AD) and the Holy See (11th century AD) officially adopted the Anno Domini system to measure the passage of time. From that point forth, it quickly became widespread in Christendom.

[sidebar: for some odd reason, in English, ‘Before Christ’ didn’t appear in writing until the late 17th century – ‘Before The Lord’s Incarnation’ was used instead – and one doesn’t see the published abbreviation ‘BC’ until the early 19th century]

So that explains BC and AD, but what of BCE and CE? Are they strictly used by non-believers, just as Christians eschewed the use of Diocletian’s calendar? Not entirely (and to no small degree because the modern conservative political prism and the so-called War on Christmas were still years in the future!)

While BCE/CE have been popular amongst Jewish authors since at least the mid-19th century (when Rabbi Morris Raphall published his widely read Post Biblical History Of The Jews), the nomenclatures’ uses far predate the middle of that century.

The German astronomer Johannes Kepler adopted his own terminology, Vulgaris Aerae (‘Vulgar Era’), freely interchangeably with Anno Domini in his scientific treatises of the early 17th century. This was in part because, in Kepler’s time, the Latin root of ‘vulgar’ was closer in meaning to ‘ubiquitous’ – that is, Kepler was merely employing a Christo-centric view of the civilized world. Later in that century, though, when ‘vulgar’ came to mean ‘uncouth’ in the non-academic English vernacular, many Western authors, staying true to Kepler’s intent but desiring to apply terminology that was not potentially pejorative, employed ‘Common Era’ in lieu of ‘Vulgar Era,’ both interchangeably with Anno Domini.

So despite what modern Christian apologists maintain – that ‘CE’ is short for ‘Christian Era’ – that is not borne by the historic record. And over the very years it was designed to measure, reference to the Common Era has gained much traction in modern scholarly circles in an attempt to sever the documentation of time from its semantically parochial roots.

Merry Christmas!

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]