Benny Jay: Betty White

May 12th, 2010

It’s been days since the show ran, but everywhere I go people are still talking about Betty White’s appearance on Saturday Night Live.

Just had a conversation with the teenage cashier — a Filipino girl — at the CVS.  She said she used to watch old Betty White sitcoms with her mother. “I can’t believe Betty White’s 90-years-old or whatever and still doing her thing….”

Yes, sir, people just can’t stop talking about Betty White. Well, maybe that’s because it’s me starting all the conversations. You know how I am — once I get started on a topic, I can’t stop. Just want to talk more and more and more about it. And these days all I want to talk about is Betty White.

betty-white

It’s driving my wife crazy, by the way.

“Enough with Betty White,” she says.

“I love Betty White,” I say.

“You don’t really love Betty White – you’re just jumping on the Betty White bandwagon….”

Ugh oh, fighting words — if she wasn’t my wife, I’d have to sue her for slander.

Okay, let’s make one thing perfectly clear: I was into Betty White long before it was fashionable. I used to watch her on the Mary Tyler Moore show way back in the 1970s. She played Sue Ann Nivens, the sex-starved lifestyles reporter who was always throwing herself at Lou Grant.

I’d be howling when she’d throw herself at Lou. Fact is, I wanted some chick — though not Betty White — to be throwing herself at me. I didn’t think about her that way. When it came to Mary Tyler Moore, my crush was for the actress who played Rhoda’s younger sister. Man, I had the hots for her. Not quite as hot as Carly Simon. Man, the cover of that No Secrets record….

Wait, where was I going?

Oh, yes, Betty White….

The real deal about Betty White is that it just goes to show you — the older you get, the more people appreciate you. At least with celebrities. It’s like they’re amazed you can still walk and talk. Then they start getting all nostalgia – thinking about where they were in life, when they first saw you do your thing.

It’s a universal thrill, everyone can relate, regardless of race, creed or color. In fact, the biggest Betty White fan I know is Sean, a thirty-something-year-old black man who works with my wife.

He used to watch Betty White when she was on The Golden Girls in the 1980s. Back then Sean was a teenager, growing up in St. Louis. He watched that show with his aunt. They loved the Golden Girls….

I was never a big Golden Girls fan. But I liked the late-great Bea Arthur, who was also on that show. Bea Arthur just cracked me up. I used to watch her on Maude back in the 1970s when I was a teenager growing up in Evanston. As a matter of fact, I watched that show with my mother.

Maude was strong, opinionated,  outspoken and liberal. Like most of the women I knew, but never saw on TV — until then….

I have to tell you — I was a little nervous when Betty White took the stage for her opening monologue. I didn’t want her to screw up and make a fool of herself.  But that old pro smacked the ball right out of the park.

She played one great bit after another. That line in the muffin skit – “I haven’t had a cherry in my muffin since 1939″ – had me rolling. Great delivery — her timing was perfect.

My favorite part of the show came when Jay-Z sang Young Forever. That’s the one with the great line that just about sums everything up: “Fear not when or fear not why, fear not much while we’re alive. Life is for living, not living uptight….”

He closed with a shout out to Betty White.

Caught me by surprise. I’d never figure Jay Z to be a Betty White fan.

But then he wasn’t always a big-time rap star, married to Beyonce, wearing his shades inside. Once upon a time he was was a teenager in New York City. Probably watched Betty White sitcoms with his mom. Or his aunt. Like me, Sean and the Filipino checkout girl at the CVS….

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Big Mike: The Play’s The Thing

May 11th, 2010

The people of this holy land don’t get the difference between fiction and non-fiction. They think politics was better and more honest back in the days of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. As if there were days of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

The first beneficiary of this disconnect between fantasy and reality was Saint Ronald Reagan. You remember, he talked about those wonderful good old days that we had to go back to and the American electorate bought it like a meth lab operator scoring a case of Sudafed. He neglected to mention things like institutionalized racism or the subjugation of women when he waxed poetic about the past. And we were happy to forget them.

Every candidate for public office depends on our inability to discern between theater and politics so I’m not just piling on Reagan and the right here. Take a pol I support — Al Gore. His movie, An Inconvenient Truth, started with a basis in truth and scientific rationale but then it became a Jerry Bruckheimer epic. Sure, it scared the bejesus out of all good eco-friendly viewers and that was Gore’s intent. But the thing was really no different than Lee Atwater‘s classic Willie Horton ad for George I. Both were triumphs of terror over thought.

All these conspiracy theorists and Tea Partiers running around seem to have the most trouble understanding that the world is not a cheap paperback thriller or prime time drama. They can’t grasp the fact that the halls of government are lousy with self-centered, pathologically ambitious boobs whose strategems are no more complex than those of a three-card monte player on the el. No, they are certain the wheels are turned by brilliant mad scientists who’ve concocted byzantine plots to solidify their hold on power for a thousand years into the future. Their slant on current affairs has more to do with Austin Powers than, say, Rahm Emmanuel.

This confusion works the other way, as well. TV in the last couple of decades and has become more and more dependent on what it calls “reality.” From Sally Jessy Raphael and Jerry Springer to Cake Boss and pseudodocumentaries like The Office and 30 Rock, viewers have wanted “real people” doing “real things.” Okay — whatever gets you through those hours when you should be doing more productive things like “talking to each other.”

Hey, I have my own guilty pleasures. My entertainment addictions have included the Three Stooges. But I’ve got to tell you I’ve never suggested that Barack Obama ought to solve our problems with Iran by clunking Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the head with a skillet.

The fuzzed line between art and life is making news again. Some people who watch Glee are hollering about a casting decision in the popular musical drama. Apparently, there’s a kid character in it who’s confined to a wheelchair. Advocates for people with disabilities think it’s rotten that the character isn’t played by a kid who really uses a wheelchair.

NPR had a report on this morning about the contretemps. Some disability advocates make a few excellent points. They say there aren’t enough depictions of disabled people on TV or in movies. And those that do exist don’t necessarily have to be of courageous and noble plaster saints overcoming great odds. They say, How about some real people who just happen to have cerebral palsy or are blind or, like Artie in Glee, are paraplegic?

But a lot of those howling about the kid playing Artie just want the part to be filled by a guy who is paraplegic.

To which I can only respond, Hey, it’s acting. When Moe drags Curly away from the circular saw by putting a hammer claw up his nose, he’s really not putting a hammer claw up his nose. When Robert Ryan beats a man to death because the guy’s a Jew, he’s not really beating a man to death. When Tess Harper takes Robert Duvall in so he can dry out, Duvall’s not really a drunk. And the kid who plays Artie is not really paraplegic.

It’s all an act. Just like politics.

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Sharday Cage: Death Of The Black Star

May 10th, 2010

During dark reasoning,

The night, the conspirator,

Rose against the black star,

Her very own children.

Purposefully unashamed,

The ruler of the first black,

Our night,

Without remorse,

Aborted her black stars,

Keeping only the clouds and moon at peace,

As the decorators of heaven.

The black stars turned to weeping,

Spiraling like a dying bird,

Towards the unaware.

Loosed from home,

Like a detached stranger,

Love, a force that kept them bound no more.

Cursed and condemned to darkness,

Wishes upon the black star,

Were never to come true.

The broken winged flyers.

Disconnected from the earth,

Gravity would not intercede.

One by one,

The black rain begins,

Crashing among us,

We, which let them fall.

Death of the black star.

The travesty is not that of living so high,

And falling so far,

But to have lived so high,

Yet never glow.

Rotted early of their radiance,

The black star was exiled from the sky.

Night, already owning the dark expanding,

Found nothing extraordinary about them.

Plummeting to an untimely death,

Unwanted, abandoned,

Death of the black star.

It has already begun,

Beneath our feet,

Black stars slumber,

Their sleep disturbing,

Like fish ashore.

Their death has become a path we walk on.

A path we walk over.

Their fate, a mere residue,

Found on the soles of our shoes.

By Sharday Cage

Editor’s Note: Look for poems by Sharday Cage — the great Lady Day — every Monday at The Third City….

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Letter From Milo: Facebook Fiasco

May 10th, 2010

A few months ago, Big Mike, the Barn Boss of this scabby, befuddled outfit, asked Benny Jay and I to attend a meeting in the conference room of our Michigan Avenue corporate suite. He wanted to discuss the sorry state of The Third City’s finances. According to the spread sheets Big Mike had tacked to the walls, readership was down, advertising was down, interest was flagging and, worst of all, revenues were nearly non-existent.

“Boys, we’re in trouble,” Big Mike said. “Unless we find more readers and crank up our cash flow, you two might have to take salary cuts.”

“Damn!”

“Shit!”

“But I’ve got the solution to our problems, “Big Mike continued. “We’re all going to get on Facebook.”

“Great idea, Big Mike,” Benny Jay said. “That’s why you’re the Barn Boss.”

“Good thinking,” I added. “But, ah, what the fuck is Facebook?”

“Facebook is a social networking site.”

“What’s networking?” I asked.

“Networking is something people do to stay in touch with like-minded individuals. They help each other find jobs, romantic partners, etc.”

“Sounds like a bunch of homely, unemployed losers fucking around on the internet.”

Big Mike called me a few choice names and then went on to explain our Facebook goals.

“The thing to remember,” he said, “is that we’re going for quality over quantity. We want to befriend movers and shakers, people in the media, people who can help promote The Third City. Don’t waste time making friends with just anybody. The whole point of this exercise is to promote our blog site and get obscenely rich. We’ll get together next month and evaluate our Facebook progress.”

When I got home that evening I poured a big glass of wine and sat down at the computer, ready to join the world of Facebook. To be completely honest, I actually had heard of Facebook before, but always figured it was something for kids. Not knowing any better, I imagined that an adult spending time on Facebook was odd, even creepy, sort of like a grown man spend time watching MTV. I quickly learned different.

Anyway, once I logged on to the site, I discovered that I needed help. So, I called on the services of the Facebook experts in my home, my daughters, Nadia and Petra. They quickly got me set up and explained the basics. The only thing lacking was a photo of me.

“Why do I have to put up a picture of my ugly old ass?”

“Duh, Dad, it’s called Facebook for a reason.”

“I’ve got an idea. Let’s put up a picture of Steve McQueen and tell everybody it’s me.”

“That would be, like, false advertising. Don’t worry, Dad. We’ll find a nice picture of you.”

The girls rummaged through some old photo albums and found a 20-year-old picture of me. They scanned it, did a bit of Photoshop work, and imported it into my Facebook profile. I was in business. Two minutes later, someone sent me a message asking to be my friend, and I was off to the races.

Every night I would sit at my computer, a couple of bottles of red wine in easy reach, and do my Facebook duty. I’d request friends, confirm friends, comment on links, become a fan of sites and post shit on my wall. I wasn’t doing it because I enjoyed it. No. If anything, it was becoming a chore. I was doing it for a greater good. I was doing it for The Third City. I was doing it for all the people that counted on us to keep their spirits up in these desperate times. I was doing it for all the good folks that see us as a bastion of decency and civilized discourse in an increasingly rude and hostile world.

Mainly, though, I did it until the wine ran out. I was usually as drunk as a pre-rehab Mel Gibson by the time I logged off of Facebook.

About a month later, Big Mike, Benny and I reconvened in our corporate offices.

“Well, boys,” Big Mike said, “we’ve staved off disaster. We live to blog another day. Our readership has increased by 38.4%. And it’s all due to Facebook. But, I have to tell you, I’m puzzled.”

“Why’s that?”

“If you remember, I asked you both to befriend movers and shakers, people with influence in the world of media and communications. Well, according to my printouts, you two did no such thing.”

“We did our best, Barn Boss,” Benny Jay said.

“Benny, the only people you befriended are Bulls’ fans and the guys on your bowling team, and most of them are illiterate. They need a calculator to keep score at the bowling alley.”

“What’s your point?”

“And Milo, you’re a disgrace.”

“So, what else is new?”

“I checked your friends’ list and the only people on it are young women who show a lot of cleavage in their profile photos.”

“It’s still a work in progress, Big Mike.”

“On top of that, you’ve become a fan of Madame LaFarge’s Whorehouse, Manny’s Pool Room, two off-track betting parlors and a guy named Nickel Bag Bernie. Who’s that?”

“Ah, let’s just say he’s an old and dear friend.”

“Whenever you comment on someone’s link, the only thing you say is ‘Go fuck yourself.’”

“That can’t be right.”

“And who’s this Elaine Soloway broad?”

“I’m not sure. I believe she was my third or fourth wife.”

“Well, I guess it’s not important. What matters is that our readership is up and the dough is rolling in again. Now, have either of you ever heard of something called My Space?”

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Benny Jay: Chocolate Milk

May 9th, 2010

At nine in the morning I’m sitting in a dentist’s chair waiting for Tony, the world’s greatest hygienist, to start cleaning my teeth.

“Any problems?” he asks, as he pokes around my mouth.

Oh, my God — where to start?

“Ugh, well — I got this crevice in the back…”

“A what?” he asks.

“A crevice….”

“A crevice?”

“Yeah, you know, a space between my teeth where the food catches….”

“Oh, a food trap….”

He laughs.

“A food trap?” I say. “That’s what it’s called?”

“Well, that’s not a scientific term, that’s just what I call it….”

I want to talk but I can’t cause he has my mouth open while he scrapes away. But as soon as he stops, I start in:  “Well, it’s a perfect term for it cause that’s what happens. You get a piece of food trapped there and it’s like an itch you can’t scratch. I’m flossing like a lunatic – I even carry dental floss in my fanny pack…”

He steps back to look at me. “You’re kidding me….”

I’m surprised that he’s surprised — am I even weirder than I know I am? — but I’m not sure what surprises him more: That I carry dental floss in my fanny pack or that I have a fanny pack at all.

I open my fanny pack and show him the dental floss. “Just in case of emergencies,” I tell him.

Then I drop my voice: “But, let’s just keep this between us….”

He takes an X-ray of my mouth and then gasps at the image, like he’s seen some unspeakable horror.

“What is it?” I ask. “Is it the food trap?”

“No, it’s worse….”

“Worse than the food trap?”

Out the door he scrambles. Back he comes with the dentist, Dr. L, who looks at the X-ray and exclaims: “Oh, my….”

The thing that’s got them gasping is a cavity that’s apparently the size of a small rodent, gnawing away at a tooth at the back of my mouth.

This cavity, they say, is a mystery. How it got there, they don’t know. There was no sign of it the last time I came in for a checkup. It’s like it emerged overnight.

“Can you think of anything that’s happened over the last few months?’ asks Tony.

You know, like the fucker’s my fault.

“Ugh, no,” I lie. “Not really….”

But, of course, it is my fault. It’s all that chocolate milk I’ve been drinking. One, sometimes two glasses a day. Can’t help myself. Life is so hard and chocolate milk is so soothing. Fill up a big old glass and knock it back. Gets me through the early afternoons of long dreary days. God, I love chocolate milk. Not quite as much as I love chicken. But almost….

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Uhm, uhm, uhm — so good!

After Tony cleans my teeth, Dr. L breaks more bad news. There’s another cavity – not quite as big as a small rodent, but big enough — growing in a tooth on the other side of my mouth.

It’s going to take four – as in, four! – appointments over the next few months to fix those bastards.

Inside my mind, I see visions of Laurence Olivier as the evil dentist in Marathon Man and I hear the sounds of drilling and Dustin Hoffman howling.

Outside, I’m as cool as a cucumber.

I make the appointments and bike home. Sit at the kitchen table in misery at the thought of all that drilling.

Suddenly, I know just what to do.

I get a big old glass and fill it with chocolate milk. Knowing full well that this is the shit that did me in, I take one gulp and then another. Oh, god, is this good. Soon I’ve emptied the glass.

As I drink alone at my kitchen table, I ponder that age-old question: Why are so many of the good things in life so bad for you?

The paradox is so unsettling I myself pour another glass of chocolate milk. Can’t expect one man – afflicted with two cavities, no less – to solve one of life’s greatest mysteries without a little sustenance.

I take a long drink. Ah, delicious. Feel better already….

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Big Mike: Paper Dolls And Fairytales

May 8th, 2010

Okay, I know that what I write today is going to make some people uncomfortable. I’m sure I’ll be accused of elitism or, at best, insensitivity to those of us who are, shall we say, less richly endowed with neurons and glial cells than, well, me.

But I was aware of the risks when Benny Jay and I started up this communications colossus. I know that of our millions of readers worldwide, there will always be some who are just looking to nail us. No doubt there’s a nitpicker in Palau right now banging out an enraged email — and he hasn’t even read the post yet!

The life of a website baron isn’t as dreamy as you might think.

Anyway, Wednesday the group of anti-war demonstrators that gathers weekly at five o’clock at the southeast corner of Bloomington‘s Courthouse Square had assumed their customary positions, holding up placards and waving peace signs at passing motorists. This being Bloomington, most of the drivers tooted their horns in solidarity with the protesters. This also being Indiana, there were a few who flashed the finger.

Back in winter, I’d let some of the elderly birds stand around in the Book Case just to warm up. One of them, a grand old dame who was probably pushing 75, held out her hands so I could feel her fingers. They felt like bony popsicles.

Protest On The Square

I like the idea that people who probably demonstrated against the Vietnam War and maybe even marched for civil rights in Alabama back in the 60s are still out there, shaking their fists at The Man. I don’t have to agree with them on every point — for instance, I was all in favor of us going into Afghanistan and kicking the living shit out of the Taliban after 9/11. Doesn’t mean I don’t admire the protesters for calling for peace. Anyway, we’re all in sweet harmony on Bushey-Boy‘s little frat boy caper in Iraq.

On rare occasions, someone’ll come into the Book Case and mutter that the protesters ought to be strung up. Not many, of course — the Book Case is, after all, an independent bookseller hard by a liberal college campus. Right wing reactionaries aren’t exactly insatiable consumers of Kurt Vonnegut or Oscar Wilde. There are, though, two or three guys who come in every month to pick up their favorite magazines. They stride in purposefully. They usually don’t say a word  — not a hello or a goodbye, no matter how charmingly I greet them. They put their cash on the counter, collect their change, and exit hurriedly. I wonder if they’re afraid the taint of liberalism will rub off on them if they stick around too long. These are the guys who’ve muttered about the protesters. Their magazines? Soldier of Fortune. American Handgunner. Guns & Ammo. Poor saps — they can’t get the mags anywhere else around here.

American Handgunner

Psst! Hey, Mister! You Wanna See A Lotta Naked Guns?

I choose not to quibble with these guys about who should or should not be strung up. Whatever I say isn’t going to move them one millimeter off their positions. Hell, if they knew what I think of the NRA, they might take the two-hour drive up to Indianapolis for their masturbatory fodder. In that case, Constance, the Big Potato here at the Book Case, would be very displeased indeed.

This week, though, I had to entertain a different kind of customer who disapproves of the protesters. And here’s where I start walking in the minefield.

Once a week a group of three people come into the Book Case. A mother, her son, and the son’s girlfriend. The mother’s name is Wendy. I’ve never caught the son’s or girlfriend’s names. They’re not exactly raconteurs. Let’s call them Todd and Ashley.

My hand to god, they all look alike. The first time I saw the three of them I thought I was looking at triplets. They’re each about 5’5″ tall. They look to be about the same age. They have nondescript hair, indeterminate color eyes, and teeth that would make a Brit shudder. My first instinct was that they were all kin — and that the kinship of their forebears was hopelessly muddled.

It was only after seeing them every week for a few months that I was able to sort out the relationships. They come in to the bookstore so the mom, Wendy, can buy paper doll books. She cuts out paper dolls and decorates her house with them. She told me so the first time I ever met them. She speaks excruciatingly slowly. She said she has dolls of Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, John Wayne, Britney Spears, Jackie Kennedy, the cast of That 70s Show, Jay Leno, ballerinas, fairies, Laverne & Shirley, Ward and June Cleaver, Cher, Liz Taylor, Hopi Indian maidens, Alice in Wonderland, Hannah Montana, dozens of Dancing With The Stars guests, airline stewardesses, nurses, and — now — the exceedingly hard-to-find Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson Paper Doll Oufit

She recited this list on the day she came in to get the Michael Jackson paper doll book. It took her a good ten minutes to run down the roster. As she intoned the names, Todd and Ashley stared at me, nodding their heads occasionally. I felt as though I was being closed in on by the Children of the Corn.

“That’s somethin’, ain’t it?” Wendy asked after she’d finished.

“Yup,” I said. “That is something.”

Staring

They came back the next week, of course, for new paper doll books. Sure enough, Wendy again ran down the list of her prized paper dolls and, again, Todd and Ashley stared at me and occasionally nodded their heads. Naturally, I reconfirmed that it was all, indeed, something.

I kid you not when I tell you that she repeated the list every week for the next couple of months. Then one week they came in and it seemed as though Todd was bursting over. He piped up, albeit in a slow drawl.

“Guess what happened, Big Mike,” he said.

“I don’t know. What?”

“You wouldn’t believe it.”

“I’ll bet I wouldn’t.”

“It was awesome.”

“Yes, yes…”

“You wouldn’t believe it.”

“Well, Todd, we can’t know if I believe it or not until you tell me.”

Wendy spoke up. “Tell the man,” she said to Todd. “He ain’t got all day to wait around for you.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Big Mike. I know you’re busy. I’m really sorr….”

“Todd!” I said. The three turned silent and looked at me with wide eyes. I spoke softer. “Please tell me what happened.”

“Oh, okay. We had one a’them raccoons outside our front window last night. I heard it. The TV was on loud but I still heard it. I looked out the window and there it was. He was lookin’ right back at me.” Todd glanced at his mother and girlfriend. They nodded.

“So I sicced my old dog out after ‘im. I got a old pitbull. You wouldn’t want to mess with him. I just opened the front door and said, ‘Go get ‘im.’ He got ‘im.”

There was a silence. I didn’t know if Todd was simply between sentences or if he’d concluded his tale. Finally I said, “I don’t believe it.”

“See, Big Mike. I told you you wouldn’t believe it.”

So Todd spun the raccoon tale every week for the next month or so.

Raccoon

“Lemme Outta Here! That Dog’s Crazy!”

One day, I was walking down Kirkwood Avenue on a glorious sunny day. Up ahead a about a half block I saw the three walking toward me. I panicked. It was too late for me to cross the street or run in the opposite direction. So I just started looking hard into a shop window. Just my luck, it was one of those candle, tea set, and tarot card shops.

I listened for the sounds of their footsteps. They stopped. Wendy said, “Hi, Big Mike.”

I spun and spoke fast. “How are you? Good to see you!”

“We’re fine,” Wendy said. Then the three of them stared at me.

“Um, uh, isn’t it beautiful out?” I said.

“Yes it is,” Wendy said. They stared some more. Finally, after what seemed an hour, Todd said, “We’re goin’ to eat lunch.”

“Well, that’s nice.”

“Yep. We’re goin’ to Taco Bell.”

Suddenly, I had a bad feeling, as if I knew what was coming. Wendy dropped the bombshell.

“Do you want to come to Taco Bell with us?”

“Oh, me? Oh, uh, I…, uh, you know, it’s the funniest thing, I ate a late breakfast.”

Todd said, “You don’t have to eat. You can have a coke.”

“Oh, well, see there, that’s a problem. My doctor doesn’t want me drinking cokes.”

For the first time in my recollection, Ashley spoke. “You could have a Sprite.”

“Yes I could. I’d loved to but I have to meet my wife for lunch.”

“What time?” Todd asked.

I had to check my watch. “Yes. What time. Oh, at twelve.” It was 11:45.

This seemed to satisfy them. Now when I walk down the street I look ahead as far as my eyes can see, on the alert for Wendy, Todd, and Ashley. I can’t lie about having lunch with my wife every day.

So Wednesday the three came into the Book Case while the anti-war protesters were out across the street. “Hi, Big Mike,” Todd said. He’s becoming rather chummy now that he knows he can amaze me with raccoon stories. Ashley stared at me.

“You see all them protesters out there?” he asked.

“Yes. They’re there every Wednesday,” I said.

“Stupid. Y’gotta support our troops.”

“Hmm.”

Now Ashley said the second thing I’ve ever heard out of her mouth. “You gotta fight them. They can be anywhere. I don’t want to walk out of here and have one of them terrorists hit me with a bomb.”

“Isn’t that right, Big Mike?” Todd asked.

“You know,” I said, “that’s something.”

“It sure is,” Todd said. We all nodded at each other.

Courthouse Square Protesters

That’s Something

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Randolph Street: South Shore Shops

May 7th, 2010

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Saturday is National Train Day.  All photos © Jon Randolph

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