Monthly Archives: November, 2014

A Friendly’s Farewell

Steven Brykman

On the eve of Friendly’s announcing they are filing for bankruptcy and closing stores in Massachusetts, and in the spirit of Thanksgiving, let me offer them a little thanks…for nothing! Along with my deepest condolences to all who ever ate there, and my regrets this hadn’t happened a whole lot sooner.

I worked at Friendly’s as a “cook” back in the mid ’80’s, in high school—the one in Lexington across from the Wal-lex bowling alley (now Staples). The level of prolonged disgust I experienced in that kitchen was rivaled only by my first year of medical school, in which I dissected a cadaver and witnessed an autopsy. Not to mention the inexplicable rage we were subjected to on a semi-regular basis, depending on which oversized troll was managing. The place was run by one man, one woman, whose names thankfully escape me now. They were nearly indistinguishable, identifiable only by their name tags. I assumed they were related in some way, though I never figured out exactly how—perhaps brother and sister, or romantically involved, or both.


The seemingly innocuous summer job quickly devolved into an interminable sequence of horrifying moments. First, there was that time during the dinner rush when I learned that plastic is an appetizer (but first, some background on the fried shrimp platter). 1) They came prepackaged in 5-shrimp bags. 2) The bags were constructed of a high-tensile plastic and, as such, were difficult to tear open (thus assuring the integrity of the shrimp). 3) The shrimp came pre-breaded, leaving only the tasks of opening the bag and dumping the shrimp into a fryolater. Though no instructions were explicitly provided by Corporate HQ as to how the bag should be opened, I felt it safe to assume the plastic packaging was not meant to be consumed along with the food. On this particular day, however, rather than going through the enormous trouble of actually opening the bag, my boss—the more masculine of the two trolls—decided it would be in the company’s best interest if he/she expedited matters by simply submerging the bag in the fryolater, letting the hot oil do the work of opening the bag—by melting away the plastic.

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A Slice of Magical Realism with your Pumpkin Pie

shutterstock_74345194“We wouldn’t perish without poetry, but we’d be considerably less,” says contemporary, formalist poet Kim Bridgford. I concur.

Here she brings her fresh, vivid voice to a holiday steeped in sedate tradition.

This one is short, and so deceptively simply on the surface that it deserves more than one read. Chew on it a bit . . .

I hope you’ll find it as conceptually clever as I do. It made me smile wide.

Wishing you a blessed Thanksgiving week!

Inflatable Doll Is Bedazzled by the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade


There’s something here that stirs her in her soul—
Like Glory Hallelujah, his caress
The day that he got her from UPS—
Blues Clues, the Muppets, each Incredible,

Her hyperbolic family in a nutshell.
She loves their prideful air. In New York City,
It’s not her normal circumstance, with pity.

In this parade, they clear each obstacle.

And like the high school kings and queens in cars
That frame them like the faintest movie stars,
Her people wave and bobble like a myth.

Dare she begin to hope her offspring wreathe
The towered sky as Smurf or Looney Tune?
What rises up: the human or balloon?


Kim Bridgford is an educator, a critic, an editor, a fiction writer, a wife, a mother, an entrepreneur and the author of many volumes of poetry.

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The Humor of Negroes by W.E.B. Du Bois [Mark Twain Quarterly, Fall-Winter 1942-1943 5.3:12]

Great archival piece by W.E.B. DuBois, written for the Mark Twain Quarterly in 1942-3.

“As it is, one can only say, that to the oppressed and unfortunate, to those who suffer, God mercifully grants the divine gift of laughter. These folks are not all black or all white, but with inborn humor, men of all colors and races face the tragedy of life and make it endurable.”

Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.

dubois285 _ NPSThe Humor of Negroes by W.E.B. Du Bois

Mark Twain Journal, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Spring, 1998), p. 8

*The article originally appeared in the Mark Twain Quarterly (former title of the Mark Twain Journal), in the issue for Fall-Winter 1942-1943 (5.3:12).*

There is a feeling among most Americans that the Negro is quite naturally and incurably humorous. One has only to see Africa to be cured of this. There is nothing more dignified nor serious than the African in his natural tribal relations. I shall never forget the sight of a Mandingran Mohammedan striding along in his beautiful white cloak and embroidered boots, tall, black, and with perfect dignity; or the way in which a Black West African went to his knees at sunset and bowed toward Mecca. Further down the coast the chiefs of the villages I visited, the porters, the children had nothing of what we…

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Thanksgiving with Bob Hope, Lady Gaga and Tennessee Ernie Ford


Some of the more meaningful Thanksgivings I have spent have been with strangers, far from home. Whether it be a mixed bag guest list peppered with other wayfarers, or being welcomed into the home of a friend’s extended family, there is something about breaking bread with strangers that lends a certain poignancy to the holiday.

It’s sort of like a television special. The personalities gathered  may be incongruous, may never be in the same place at the same time again, yet the spirit of the occasion provides a cohesiveness that, even if transparent, works.

There is also the discovery of common ground. One year I spent Thanksgiving in Long Island with a college friend. Before we entered his Italian grandmother’s home he warned me, “Just so you know, we don’t do the traditional turkey dinner. It will probably be lasagna.” I just smiled. “In my family it’s ravioli,” I said.

Speaking of television specials, usually a collection of comedy bits and musical numbers, there have been a few Thanksgiving-themed ones over the years. Continue reading →

Kurt Vonnegut is Taken Seriously, and You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!

I’m not sure that it ranks as high as pictures of baby animals, meme-based quizzes, “infotainment” listicles, or Kim Kardashian’s prodigious rump, but Kurt Vonnegut’s very name seems to have become a powerful form of clickbait in the twenty-first century. Judging from my own Facebook feed, there must be weekly (if not almost daily) blog posts or internet articles citing the wit and wisdom of the great Hoosier novelist. Vonnegut’s birthday on November 11 – serendipitously, it coincides with Armistice Day, otherwise known as Remembrance Day, but in the United States (and to Vonnegut’s dismay) it is now called Veteran’s Day – occasioned another wave of links crashing upon my social media screens, including this one, bizarrely titled “So It Goes: A Life of Guidance from Kurt Vonnegut in 11 Quotes.” As with other such worshipful pieces, all of the quotations are taken completely out of context, but errant web-surfers apparently find his words all the more meaningful, inspiring, or “guiding” for their being context-less. It matters little that Vonnegut was writer who consistently lamented the loss of memory and who derogated the false promise of an afterlife, particularly when he is being memorialized on the internet in such a way as to reinforce the memory-loss and to celebrate immortality. More than seven years after his death and more than 45 years after the publication of his most famous novel, Vonnegut lives a vibrant, seemingly eternal life as a ghostly but wise internet presence. Hi ho!

kurt-vonnegut-back-to-schoolFor Vonnegut fans, the author’s virtual afterlife might be gratifying, as it justifies their own fandom and lends support to the view that Vonnegut, despite appearances, remains a timely figure whose sage wisdom is perfectly suited to our perilous, uncertain times. (Although, as Vonnegut himself might have noted, all times that can be labeled “the present” are equally perilous and uncertain.) Vonnegut scholars, as distinct from fans, are more apt to be dismayed by the outsized and artificial figure of the pop-culture Kurt, whose guru-like status among these consumers of dime-store philosophy and BuzzFeed-styled advertising-posing-as-thoughtful-reflection clearly betrays Vonnegut’s own caveats about gurus, every single one of whom are mountebanks, grifters, confidence men, or worse … politicians.

Like any writer, of course, Vonnegut craved an audience. He wanted to be taken seriously, perhaps more than ever when he was joking. But what he has mostly received from his many fans in the internet age is adulation, adoration, and even various forms of tribal worship. The website of The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, a marvelous shrine in the novelist’s erstwhile hometown Indianapolis, features photographs of Vonnegut-inspired tattoos, emblazoned into the flesh of his zealous acolytes, for instance. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, naturally, but it’s hard to imagine the Brooks Brothers suit-clad Vonnegut rushing out to get Mark Twain quips permanently inscribed on his shoulder blades. In what must be a cosmic joke on the order of some of Vonnegut’s best science fiction, then, we find that the imaginative creator of the false faith of Bokononism, a practical religion based exclusively upon lies, has become an internet prophet and truth-teller of the new millennium.

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There’s a Political Cartoonists behind Every Successful Political Cartoon

I dare to venture a guess that most history scholars have at one time or another used a political cartoon to make a historical point, be it in class, in a publication, or even privately in discussions with laymen. In fact, walking through a history department you are bound to find a political cartoon adorning a wall or a professor’s door. Political cartoons are indeed excellent historical source material. The problem is that most of the above uses are superficial and seldom live up to the standards of source criticism historians work by. Reading a cartoon, especially a historical one, is not a “natural” process; it takes work and an understanding of not only the period in question but of visual analysis, of the artist, and of the publication.

With proper methodology cartoons can be even more valuable material for historians than their neighbors on the op-ed pages of daily papers. This stems from the cartoons wide circulation among the readers (studies have found political cartoons to be among the most read parts of the paper), from their encapsulation of salient issues of the day, but perhaps most of all from the fact that a successful cartoon captures the contemporary mentality by essentially using already accepted, or at least, widespread ideas. A few more words on this last aspect; many scholars argue that cartoons have to communicate known ideas for them to be understood and appreciated. Cartoonists tend to agree; “the idea contained in a political cartoon must not only be easily understood but even be already widely established before the cartoonist uses it”, British cartoonist Nicholas Garland explains. Essentially the cartoonist encapsulates the public awareness of an issue and then adds a recognized commentary. This is one of the reasons Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed cartoons to be “often the truest history of the times”. As communication scholar Janis L. Edwards concludes; “political cartoons historicize the present and form a collective record of the social imagination regarding events in political life”.

Considering the frequent use of individual cartoons and the potential of cartoons as source material it is striking how limited historical research of political cartoons is. In fact, Kent Worcester goes as far as comparing the existing scholarship on cartoons to that on political campaign buttons. The most frequently cited reason for this lack of scholarship is methodology. In increasingly inter-disciplinary academia this is, however, no longer an acceptable position; historians must be able to utilize the theories and methods of art history as well as of humor studies and communication studies. A more pressing concern is the limitations the existing lack of scholarship on cartoonists constitutes for any research on their work.

Thomas Nast's famous depiction of Boss Tweed (Harper's Weekly, October 21, 1871)

Thomas Nast’s famous depiction of Boss Tweed (Harper’s Weekly, October 21, 1871)

Thomas Nast, the cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly who “took down Boss Tweed”, is generally accepted as the Great American Cartoonist, and indeed of him there are a few historical biographies ( I review Fiona Deans Halloran’s recent Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons in the upcoming issue of Studies of American Humor). Beyond Nast, the proverbial Hall of Fame for cartoonists is populated by talents such as Joseph Keppler, Homer Davenport, Rollin Kirby, Edmund Duffy, and Ding Darling. Of these earlier cartoonists and influential members of the American press there is some, if limited, historical research; Richard Samuel West’s work on Keppler and Darling, Leland Huot’s book on Davenport, and S.L. Harrison’s research on Edmund Duffy stand out among the few.

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Langston Hughes on Hard Laughter

Langston Hughes’s roughest book of poetry is also an homage to laughter.

In 1925 Langston Hughes lived with his mother on the north side of S Street, a few short blocks from Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. The tiny two-story square row home, painted in deep brown trim today, is set back from the sidewalk. A meandering path leading up to the house meets, at the sidewalk’s edge, the meandering path of the house next door; they bend together in the rough shape of a heart. The first story of the home has a large single window, broad and revealing like a storefront display. The second and top story, where Hughes most likely lived and wrote, seems squat, pared down, resting atop the broad window. The house itself is inconspicuous, quiet, and low––slyly hidden by the grander-seeming homes surrounding it.

Langston Hughes Fine clothes to the JewLangston Hughes lived in many places during his pivotal year in Washington, but, walking by this house one day recently, I found myself wondering if it was here that the seeds were planted for his 1927 book of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, a book famous among a small group of scholars for its controversial release but that remains unknown to many.

Today the book is out of print. Google Books does not “preview” it, most libraries do not carry it, and even The Library of Congress cannot locate their lone copy. A small number of first editions are available on-line for upwards of a thousand dollars. The book is worth far more. (Two Collected Works of Langston Hughes editions, Arnold Rampersad’s and Dolan Hubbard’s, contain the poems from Fine Clothes to the Jew.) The book received scathing reviews when first released, mostly from Hughes’s fellow literati in Harlem, for its seemingly unabashed and degrading depictions of African Americans.

In situation and appearance, Langston Hughes’s mother’s home resembles the paradox in the reception history of Fine Clothes to the Jew. The house is removed, easy to miss, simple, and confined in the heart of a bustling city. Yet the house is also solid and stern, its gazing window luminous. Likewise the poems in this book are hard, describing people who live hard lives in the brusque city or lonely, rural south. Actually, written in six parts alternating between the city and the country, Fine Clothes doesn’t describe these people; rather, each poem is spoken in the voice of a different, struggling soul—the prostitute, the pimp, the abusive husband, the abused wife, the player, the played, the child, the worried parent, the broken-hearted, and the philanderer—to name just a few of the characters. A burdened consciousness of race and ethnicity is made overt notably in the book’s title, which pairs beauty or opulence (fine clothing) with the ugliness of bigoted social perceptions.

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