Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Lesson of Buttons and Bonnets

It's still No. 1 on the hit-parade: The Economy. Forget UGH, or AARGH. This week's phrase-making addition to the vocabulary of revulsion is, well, AIG. (Pronounce it "egg," or "eck," and you'll eventually get to "ick.") Those 70-odd bonuses, paid out it would seem, with government bailout money, to CEOs, has set the entire country on fire. We could see heads rolling in the streets before it is all over. So far, we're not allowed to know the names of the recipients, because it could be their heads rolling, quite literally, given the onslaught of threats (to strangle entire families with wire coat-hangers, for instance) that have been issued by an enraged populace. This latest injustice is a stone in the public's shoe, as one NPR commentator stated, that has to be removed. That's putting it mildly; it reads to me like a possible prelude to a home-grown French Revolution--which is why Congress plans on clawing the money back through taxes.

"It seems as though it would be pretty easy to upend a bonus contract that must read something like: 'If you ruin the world economy, we’ll pay you an extra million,' " quips Maureen Dowd, Queen of Snark, in the New York Times. "What President Obama should have said to the blood-sucking bums at A.I.G.," she writes, "many of them foreigners who were working at the louche London unit, was quite simple: 'We stopped the checks. They’re immoral. If you want Americans’ hard-earned cash as a reward for burning up their jobs, homes and savings, sue me.' ”

Obama, however, still has some tricks left up his sleeve. He will probably turn the tables and use AIG as an example to catalyze public support for significant regulatory reform. Republicans, eat your heart out!

Meanwhile, it's probably no accident that every second cartoon in the New Yorker each week pertains to the economy. Infusions of humor injected into the public's stiffened jaws allow them to briefly shake, jiggle and bounce. A good laugh never hurts. So this guy comes up to a hot-dog stand on the street intending to inquire about a job. But there are already eight other men huddled under the umbrella, tongs in hand ready to serve a hot dog to the next customer. "Sorry," reads the caption. "We don't need anyone at the moment." Then there are the two women standing in front of a store front whose window is filled with sale signs of 50-75% off. "Finally!" one says to the other, a smile breaking through her furrowed brow. "Cheap is the new black!"

Synchronistically, I have to say I also enjoyed the "Shouts & Murmurs" column in the March 16th New Yorker by Paul Rudner: "Confessions of a Pilgrim Shopaholic." The narrator, one Rebecca Hamshill, is living in Plymouth Colony, having arrived there in 1626. During her first year in the New World, she traveled to Boston to purchase a thimbleful of salt, and five years later, she goes back again to get another one. "I am out of control," she reports. Her mind is consumed with nothing but thoughts of spending.

At one point, she points to the story of another profligate like herself but in the Virginia Colony, who bartered her second child to a local tradesman for a wooden button (all this could have been written by James Howard Kunstler on a good-hair day, were he more funny, but it wasn't). Other women became so envious of her button that they ripped her limbs from her torso and ate them. (AIG palookas beware! It could happen to you.) Eventually her demon of greed requires a public exorcism, presided over by the town pastor with all the villagers repeating the Lord's Prayer.

As the villagers lay their hands upon her, the demon cackles and swears: "A bonnet! Bring me another bonnet! A peaked black bonnet as fine as any widow's!" At which point, Rebecca loses consciousness. When she wakes up the next day, her demon has vanished, "gone back to his fetid underworld."

The word "underworld" unexpectedly conjures up Virgil, my alligator assistant, who arrives suddenly, smelling of hair oil and some kind of food. He nods his head in vehement approbation, and starts making the random, spontaneous remarks that are his trademark, and so often oddly appropriate.

"This is Hello Day for all those CEO political lepers," he says. "You see what can happen to folks who crave too many wooden buttons and black bonnets. My advice to you all is, do not be purposely troublesome. The mojito fountain is no longer operating as usual--so Baby, it's time to meet the bath water. If not, you too will probably be going the way of the auk and the dodo, falling into extinction."

Then, after a pause, I see Virgil step out, an ordinary alligator again, and make his way back to the terminal.

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