Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Love Boat

A month ago the family and I joined two other families on a Caribbean cruise. I had never been on a cruise before (although I’ve read about them and, of course, watched The Love Boat when I was a mere child), but have always wanted to experience what it’s like. Well, it was loads of fun and I ate too much food! The kids had a ball and the older folks had a great time as well. Here’s a few pics:

The missus and I on Deck 4.

Here we are in our tiny stateroom that managed to house the four of us comfortably.

The three daddies on New Years Eve.

Mr. and Mrs. Schprock on New Years Eve.

Daughter Number 1 looking slightly demented.

Daughter Number 2 looking quite demented.

The Schprock family in front of the Atlantis Hotel in Nassau.

DN1 and DN2.

DN1 with some Latin singer heartthrob I never heard of before.

The missus and DN1 in Key West.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Exploring My Feminine Side

The other day, as an experiment, I thought I’d stop repressing my feminine side for 24 hours and actually let it call the shots. All my life my masculine side has had its way, so, in the interest of fairness, I decided the considerate thing to do was to give my feminine side its one day in the sun. Why the hell not, right? Read on, gentlemen, and as you do, I ask you to think twice before trying such a thing yourself.

When I woke up that morning, my feminine side inspected my face in the bathroom mirror and decided it didn’t like those bags under my eyes, so it obsessed about them for 10 minutes while I argued my eyes looked just fine. Finally, my feminine side declared it didn’t care any longer, and people would just have to love me for my mind instead, which sounded all right to me. Then I changed into my cycling clothes (I commute to work by bike every day), which meant I put on a pair of those black, stretchy tights used for the cold weather. My feminine side insisted I review myself before a full length mirror before I left the house looking that way. I said it didn’t matter, because that was what I was going to wear, like it or not, but my feminine side insisted. So I walked into my daughter’s room and let my feminine side have a good look at myself in her mirror. My feminine side wondered if the tights made me look fat. I said, “Fat! I’m skinny as a rail!” “Really?” asked my feminine side, suddenly sounding rather pleased. “Do you think so?” “Oh, for Christ’s sake, let’s get out of here,” I said.

Of course, I couldn’t leave without going to the bathroom one last time, because my feminine side didn’t want to get caught outside and suddenly have to go pee without a restroom handy. Eventually I hopped on my bike and pedaled into work.

Arriving, I showered and changed into my work clothes. My feminine side wondered if I had ever heard of an iron, and who picked my wardrobe out for me anyway, Stevie Wonder? I said, very funny, and thanked it for not asking why I don’t use conditioner. Then I went to my office and my feminine side asked how could I work in such clutter and hadn’t I heard of feng shui? I said, no, but I’ve heard of wang chung, and my feminine side said it didn’t get it and wondered if that was supposed to be a joke. Then Fred, one of my coworkers, came by, and we talked about football and women for a half an hour while my feminine side just listened and clucked its tongue every now and again.

When Fred left, my feminine side asked, “Is he a friend of yours?”

“You know he is,” I said. “We hang out at work all the time.”

“And you think all those horrible things he says about women are true?”

“Feminine Side, I’ll only say this: Fred wishes all those horrible things he says about women are true.”

“Men!” said my feminine side.

At lunchtime, my feminine side refused to go along with my desire for a brontosaurus burger with curly fries and a chocolate shake. Instead, I wound up going to that new vegetarian restaurant, Green Cuisine, and ordered the salad bar with a bottle of designer water. “Bean sprouts!” I said disgustedly as I moved through the line. “Pea pods!” “Yummy!” said my feminine side. “And don’t forget the fat free dressing.”

That afternoon, my feminine side begged me to ask another coworker of mine, Betty, what that captivating scent was she was wearing. “Aw, come on,” I said, “I feel stupid asking that.” But my feminine side really wanted to know because it smelled just heavenly; so, of course, I had to do it.

“Betty,” I said, “what is that captivating scent you’re wearing?”

Betty gave me a strange look. “Why do you care?”

“Um, I might get it for my wife.”

“It’s Bootylicious, by L’Oreal,” she said.

“Oh, Bootylicious, huh? Sounds trés chic. Um, wait a minute, hold on a sec. Does that skirt you’re wearing come in hunter green?”

“Are you kidding?”

“No, and who makes that lip gloss you’re wearing?”

“Schprock,” said Betty, looking annoyed, “I’ve got work to do.”

“Sure, Betty,” I said, letting her pass. Then, as she quickly walked down the corridor away from me, I called out, “Love your shoes!”

After work, I stopped by Blockbuster to rent some DVDs. As I headed straight for Rambo 13: No Real Reason, Just Because and Jackass: The Director’s Cut, my feminine side stopped me cold. “You are not going to watch those, are you?” my feminine side asked. “Well, yeah, why? What did you have in mind?” My feminine side told me and I burst out laughing. “You can’t possibly be serious!” I managed to say through my tears. “Ha! Ha! Ha! That’s too much!”

After a minute or two, I regained my composure and asked, “Really, what should I get?” There was no response. “Feminine Side?” I asked. Nothing.

My feminine side had evidently stopped talking to me.

In the end, I left with six Julia Roberts movies and The Notebook. Later that evening, I sat down to watch the movies with my two daughters after we first talked about the boys at their schools. Still later, when I retired to bed with my wife, I asked her if maybe we should shop for some nice, silk sheets with a floral pattern that picked up on the wallpaper. Finally, mercifully, I fell asleep.

Well, I’m back to my regular self, I’m pleased to say, although I have to admit that day gave me a real education. Yep, I’m back to my good old, secure-in-my-masculinity, mild-mannered self. Only . . . a little word of advice: right around the 21st of the month, it’s probably best to step lightly around me. If you know what I mean.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Schprockie Balboa

Which is that culture that believes your dead ancestors look down upon you and, through subtle means, guide you and impart their wisdom? Is it Native American? Or is there more than one culture that believes in that? Anyway, consider that at any given moment, your grandfather or great-grandfather or great-aunt on your mother’s side might be looking down at you — say, right now, for instance. Weird, huh? What I mainly want to know is, who the hell is charge of me, and is he or she really doing the job? Because I’ve done a lot of boneheaded things in my life, far too many for a supernatural agency not to notice. Where was, say, great-uncle Hjalmar when I bought that lemon-yellow Chevy Vega back in 1977, the one that kept breaking down and never ran right? I knew it was supposed to be a crappy car, but I went ahead and bought it anyway. If Uncle Hjalmar had just once told me, in a thin voice barely heard above the breeze, “No, Schprockie, no — Consumer Reports says Vegas suck,” that would have stopped me. I wouldn’t have bought that car. Of course, Uncle Hjalmar only spoke Swedish, which I don’t understand, and Uncle Hjalmar probably was never interested in Consumer Reports, even in heaven, but still, a little help, you know? Come on, ancestors, I’m dying here! And don’t just say it’s my “destiny” every time things go awry either. I’m wise to that.

Wouldn’t you like to have what Luke Skywalker had with Obi Wan Kenobi? When things start going wrong and panic sets in, right there at that critical moment a tiny, bearded, monkish specter with a shimmery, sparkly aura appears and calmly reminds you to use the Force. Of course! How stupid of me! The Force! That’s just what the situation needs! Or how about a guardian angel? A minature, white-robed, winged fellow foreseeing trouble and helping you avoid it 24/7 with no coffee break? Wouldn’t that be great?

This is who I want for my spirit guide: Mick from Rocky. Just at the moment I start to do something stupid, I want a little, wizened old guy with a hearing aid jammed into his cauliflower ear to yell out in a gravelly voice: “Schprock, you bum! Your wife don’t want no bowling ball. Get her roses, for crissake!” Or: “Goddammit, Schprock, that’s the dessert fork, not the salad fork, and you don’t drink no wine outta no straw!” Or, if he was there with me on that fateful day in 1977: “Whaddaya you think that car’s painted yeller for, Schprock? Huh? Now get over there and talk to that guy about the ’73 Pacer instead.” Boy, Mick could have sure helped me out.

Question du jour: if you had your choice, whose spirit would you like to guide you?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Big John Mooney

I’ve been working for this old graphic design studio now for some twenty years and I’ve seen a lot of things. Many people have come and gone through the door, so to speak. I know an intern I used to order around who went on to become a bigwig in a prestigious Boston ad agency, and who could now buy and sell me several times over as the expression goes; and there are several others who have done very well for themselves besides. There has been gossip, drama, scandal, and all the other things you expect when you’ve been in one place for as long as I have. But for me, the most memorable character I can think of who I ever had the pleasure to work with was none other than Big John Mooney.

It was July of 1988 as I recall. One Wednesday morning our boss walked over to our section to announce he’d hired someone new. We’d gotten quite busy lately, he explained, and another hand was needed. “His name is John Mooney,” the boss said, “and he’s supposed to be the best paste-up man in the business.”

“Really? But what’s he like?” asked little Sally MacCrae, who always wanted to know everything about everybody.

“Well, this guy interviewed well and all that,” replied my boss thoughtfully. “Knows how to hold his side of the conversation, that’s for sure. His portfolio is terrific. But here’s one thing about him you’ll notice right away: he’s very large.”

“He’s . . . large?” repeated Sally.

“I believe I said ‘very large,’” corrected the boss. “Hell, you’ll find all that out on Monday. Now everyone, let’s get to work. We’ve got a catalog and two brochures to produce.”

Bringing a new person onto the staff wasn’t an everyday occurrence and this got everyone talking. Besides Sally MacCrae and myself, there was Peter Pepperton and Billy Joe Whiffle. Peter was an illustrator as well as a designer, particularly good with the airbrush, and thought that whoever this John Mooney was, he, Peter, was the indispensable one in the studio and should remain so. Billy Joe fancied himself a first-rate paste-up artist and took the boss’s claim of John Mooney being the best a bit personally. Me, I knew how to cut up a galley of type and paste it down on the board straight all right, but I made no pretensions to anything. With all the work we were getting, another pair of hands seemed welcome to me. Sally was just caught up on John Mooney being large.

“Large? Large in what way?” she wondered.

“What way are you hoping, Sally?” asked Peter Pepperton with a look that brought a blush to little Sally MacCrae’s cheeks.

The next day, which was Thursday, brought a crew of forty carpenters into our studio who marched straight in and went to work on a corner of the studio. They knocked down a wall and extended the space some twenty feet. Then they raised the ceiling by ten feet and finished the day by reinforcing the floor with three inch steel plates and widened the doorway leading into our office as they left. I can tell you it was amazing we got any work done at all with the dust they raised and the ruckus they caused. Then the day following that, an eighteen-wheeler pulled up to our building and twenty men unloaded a drafting table the size of patio deck and a swivel chair you could have parked a Volkswagen Beetle on. We four stood around and stared in wonder once everything was installed.

“I’m beginning to think I know what the boss meant by John Mooney being large,” said Billy Joe Whiffle in evident awe. Peter Pepperton let out a low whistle. I hoisted Sally MacCrae onto the chair. “You can dance on this thing!” she exclaimed from above, twirling around as she said it. “He must have an ass the size of Kansas!”

Monday couldn’t come soon enough for us. As if by mutual consent we all reported to work early so we could each witness the arrival of our new coworker. Our usual hours were from nine to five, and, as the clock ticked down to nine o’clock, we began to wonder if this could be some elaborate practical joke played on us by our boss. How ridiculously out of scale this person had to be! Surely no one of such dimensions existed. And yet, even as this doubt entered our heads, a slight tremor in the floor became detectable at precisely 8:59. Sally and I looked at each other, and then at a pencil cup nearby that made a steady progress across a table top as the vibrations, regular as footsteps, became stronger and stronger. “Holy Christ,” I heard Peter Pepperton say under his breath. “That couldn’t be . . . ?”

The door opened and first I saw an arm, followed by a foot and a leg. Then came a chest, another arm, another foot and another leg. Then a head, a prodigious head, a very manly and one might say shapely head, only several times larger than expected of a human being, came through the door. And finally, with all his parts collected in one place, there stood, or rather crouched, with his head canted to one side because the cathedral ceiling was still a bit too low for him, the estimable person of Big John Mooney.

“Holy Christ!” repeated Peter Pepperton, only much louder this time. “Sweet Jesus in heaven!”

“Um, hello…” I said, tentatively extending a hand and wondering if people that size could shake hands in any conventional way.

“Welcome,” said little Sally MacCrae, appearing very flushed in the face and sounding a bit dazed.

“Don’t kill us,” said Billy Joe Whiffle. “Please.”

At this Big John Mooney laughed with all the resonance and reverberation of a pipe organ at full volume and with every stop pulled. “Haw! Haw! Haw!” guffawed Big John Mooney, showing perfectly white, straight teeth the size of silver dollars. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” He evidently thought Billy Joe Whiffle was kidding.

I must describe for the reader what Big John Mooney looked like. He was certainly huge, bigger than any human you ever saw, but he was proportionate in his hugeness. If you saw him in a photograph with nothing in it to indicate scale, you would assume him to be a rather handsome man and nothing freakish at all. Although Sally MacCrae disagreed with me, I thought he resembled the movie actor Cary Grant in the face, only with a mustache. She thought he had a classical look, like you might see in ancient Greek or Roman statues. His arms and chest were extremely powerful, like a wrestler’s, and his thighs reminded you of mighty sequoias. He dressed very stylishly, and we later learned he employed a team of tailors to fashion a new wardrobe for him every spring and fall using equipment made especially for him. But his outstanding attribute were the many expressions the mobile features of his face could make as he spoke. He was very good with a joke or story, which he told in a sonorous voice that nearly knocked the wind out of you, and I truly believe that if his size was more in line with that of ordinary people he could have been a first rate actor. He was a presence. If Big John Mooney was in the room, he was indisputably in the room. Without a doubt Big John Mooney could make you know he was in the room.

So that was how we met. Big John Mooney was shown to his workstation and he produced from an enormous suitcase he carried a two gallon jar of rubber cement, a yard-long metal triangle, a jumbo X-acto knife and a colossal set of Rapidiographs. In his other hand he clutched a T-square twice the size of any legendary broadsword wielded by any legendary knight. He sat down in his chair, assembled his tools just so, taped an illustration board down to his table, and set to work.

I am afraid we forgot our manners that day. When a new person comes within your midst, it is customary to welcome him and make him feel at home, to glad-hand him and see he feels a part of the team, but there your solicitations and keen attentions should end to allow the new guy a chance to acclimate himself, breathe, settle in, find his rhythm, and so on. At first we tried to do just that. But there he was, filling the room in that way I’ve mentioned, already launched into his work of ruling boards (or “mechanicals” as we sometimes called them), cementing and cutting up galleys of type, sizing photos, and applying acetate overlays, all the while singing or humming or keeping a running commentary on what he was doing for anyone who would listen. One by one we carried our stools over to where he worked to stand on them to watch his progress. For so large a man he went about his business very delicately and nimbly and with absolutely no wasted movement. His two hands could operate quite independently of each other like a pianist delicately tinkling the high notes with his right hand while hammering away at the lowest bass notes with his left. All of his decisions were quick and assured. He enjoyed the attention he was getting and starting telling us stories as he worked, every now and then cracking a joke or two, or singing a snatch of an Italian aria, or throwing in some phrases of ancient Greek and Latin which, though unintelligible to us, were nice to listen to. Big John Mooney was no ordinary man — this we quickly learned.

That day the boss gave him a 120-page catalog. Now, we designers often work in spreads, or the left- and right-hand pages together as a reader would view them in an open book. If you could get six spreads laid out in a day, that was considered quite good. Eight spreads in a day was exemplary. But on this day, as we stood and watched, Big John Mooney laid out the entire catalog! I closely followed his every movement, knew exactly what he was doing, saw the logic of everything, and still could not believe the rate at which he went. He stacked one mechanical after another beside him like cordwood . . . and all the while he talked. When I say he talked, I mean he talked and talked and talked. He talked about sports and politics, science, philosophy, literature, movies, music, astrology, fashion, gossip, history, art, and everything else. No subject was dry to him. Of course he included us, it was a discussion in the dictionary sense of the word, but a discussion he directed while the boards piled higher and higher on the counter next to him. He even gave us nicknames that day. Billy Joe Whiffle became “Waffler,” Peter Pepperton “Pepsi” or “Dr. Pepper,” Sally MacCrae “Li’l Sal,” and I was dubbed “Schprockie.” I believe it was then that Billy Joe Whiffle and Peter Pepperton began to conceive a strong dislike for Big John Mooney (whom we all simply called “Mooney”), as I think they were not entirely satisfied with their new names. Sally MacCrae didn’t mind being called L’il Sal, and, having been called Schprockie all my life by many people, I took no offense . . . but, of course, I am a rather mild person and not easily offended anyway.

The boss was quite pleased by Big John Mooney’s production, and his estimation was further enhanced when he discovered Mooney could render the finest illustrations in any medium, be it pen and ink, watercolor, marker, airbrush, oil or acrylic. This was very disconcerting to Peter Pepperton, who, up until that time, considered himself (if no one else would) a prodigy when it came to that. Big John Mooney could also “hand comp” any typeface, be it Helvetica, Caslon Old Style, Times Roman, Copperplate, Garamond, or any of the others. This upset Billy Joe Whiffle, who considered imitating typefaces by hand his specialty for those times when we had to present to a client an approximation of what a brochure cover or advertisement might look like when it came to be printed. Myself, I simply enjoyed watching Mooney work and asked him many questions which he answered patiently, telling me little tips and coaching me here or there. I think Big John Mooney might have had a soft spot in his heart for me, or at least it was my conceit to think so; but whatever portion of his heart my interests might have occupied, there was another in the studio who owned a greater share of that heart, although not everyone knew it immediately.

Big John Mooney, it has been established, was very big; and it may be noted that Boston, as far as cities go, is rather small; so before too long people began to notice Big John Mooney. If he took the train into work, he would have to sit on top of it and straddle the car as it it were a horse. If he rode his giant bicycle, he would ride it on the Massachusetts Turnpike and often outpace the cars as he pedaled. Sometimes he would pack his clothes in a waterproof sack and swim the Charles River into work. When that same river froze in the winter, he skated. Wherever he went, he was sure to carry his enormous T-square, which he would clutch in his hand or slip through his belt like a sword. Walking in a crowd, he was Gulliver among the Lilliputians, and people, after having gotten over the initial shock of seeing someone of his size strolling with such an immense, shining, stainless steel T-square, whistling a tune to himself and for all the world affecting a complete unconsciousness of the stares he attracted, would call up to him and make little witticisms at his expense. Here Big John Mooney showed a particular gift for repartee, and he gave back even better than what he got, but all in good fun. This in time made him a great favorite, and everybody looked forward to the moment when Big John Mooney and his T-square would come by, already having in mind what they would say to him and wondering what pithy rejoinders their comments might earn.

I suppose it makes sense that, being a big person, he had an appetite commensurate with his tremendous bulk. This was quite true: he could really pack a meal away. Very soon after Mooney installed himself in my company, he made arrangements with the local eateries and coffee shops to provide for requirements as astronomical as they were gastronomical. On alternate mornings, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts sent over cartloads of pastries and coffee served in recycled oil drums. His lunches went this way: on Mondays, Pizza Hut baked a 20 foot diameter pizza with onions, mushrooms and green peppers in a massive brick oven Big John Mooney constructed himself for their use. Tuesdays, Subway fashioned a tuna sub (with everything on it) that, when complete, stretched from Berkeley Street several blocks on down to Exeter Street. On Wednesdays, Mooney indulged in the Beijing Restaurant’s family-style bean curd served over vegetarian fried rice, cooked in a wok converted from a retired NASA satellite dish. Thursdays, Sbarros spent all morning preparing a spinach and feta cheese calzone the size of a Hummer. Mooney’s weekly lunch schedule rounded out with Friday, when Captain Joey Baggadonitz, skipper of The Rubber Ducky, sold his entire catch of fish to the Legal Seafood Restaurant, which they then deep-fried in batter and delivered to our illustrious colleague in a dump truck.

I have mentioned that Big John Mooney attracted attention — that he certainly did, but most particularly he drew the notice of the ladies. They adored him to distraction. They became giddy in his presence. They giggled and pointed and made perfect fools of themselves. They thought him the most marvelous man in all of God’s creation. In a very short time, Mooney was recognized as Boston’s most eligible bachelor. He was handsome, dressed smartly, witty and not shy. Women everywhere dreamed of being with Big John Mooney. A local television news anchorwoman, in a mad moment, once proposed marriage to him while on the air. Even the married ladies, previously contented with their lot, began to give their husbands sidelong glances and admit that, though they might walk down the aisle again with their spouses if given the chance, they still, all in all, weren’t Big John Mooney, were they? And the husbands and other men of Boston, seeing Big John Mooney stride down the sidewalk with his T-square gleaming in the sun and watching every female head swivel around in his wake like so many springtime flowers stretching themselves to the sun’s radiance, might, for a moment, stand up a little straighter, or possibly puff their chests out a bit more, or suck in their stomachs, or hold their chins a little higher, and think maybe they had something to offer too; but ultimately they saw the futility of matching themselves up against such a man. Shoulders slumped, chests caved in and eyes fell to the ground. Whatever these poor mortals might do in life, however grand their achievements or whatever mark they might leave on this world, none of them could ever ever ever be Big John Mooney. It was lunacy even to try.

Well, things changed in the studio. After a few months Big John Mooney became the “go-to guy,” and it developed that everyone else’s new job was to simply keep the go-to guy going. Peter Pepperton was told to stop doing illustrations and design layouts in order to maintain Mooney’s airbrush and compressor, Rapidiographs, watercolor brushes and other art implements. Billy Joe Whiffle ceased his production work and spent his time refilling Mooney’s rubber cement jar (which frequently ran low) and kept the supplies from running out. I cut up the illustration boards for Big John Mooney and applied tissue overlays on them to protect his fine handiwork when he was through. Sally MacCrae mainly answered the phones (half the calls were for Mooney) and did what she could to keep his vast workstation neat. Our relationship to Big John Mooney soon became roughly that of pit crew to race car driver.

Peter Pepperton and Billy Joe Whiffle bore their new duties with black looks and insolent replies to anything asked of them. They began to whisper between themselves in a conspiratorial fashion and cast baleful looks at the rest of us, having already decided that Sally MacCrae and I were satisfied with the new order and therefore not privy to their opinions. The truth was, I felt my talents were being somewhat wasted too; but observing Big John Mooney at work was an education I wouldn’t have missed for the world. I suppose I idolized him. Not only was he the best designer I had ever seen, I had never been exposed to anyone half so witty and well-read and charming as he. It was no wonder to me why Mooney was so popular, and why his pictures frequently appeared in The Boston Herald or The Boston Globe, such as the one with the mayor standing smiling next to his belt buckle, or the snapshot of the senate president seated smugly beside Mooney’s left knee, or the photo of him with Tori Steele, the weeknight anchorwoman of FOX 25 News at Ten, with her arm wrapped proudly around his little finger. Sally MacCrae, I could tell, worshiped Big John Mooney. I think she even spruced up her appearance for the big guy. I always thought Sally was pretty, but lately I noticed her hair was styled just a little nicer than previously and she wore slightly more make-up than before. Certainly she had a special way with Big John Mooney. No one could make him laugh more than her.

One day Peter Pepperton and Billy Joe Whiffle had a long meeting with the boss in his office. When they emerged, they smiled at each, glanced over at Big John Mooney, and smiled some more. I didn’t like it much. There was something decidedly malicious in their smiles.

That afternoon I found an opportunity to accost Billy Joe Whiffle in private. “What the hell was that all about?” I asked him.

“Just a little discussion with the boss, Schprockie, nothing to get in a snit over.”

“About what?”

“Oh, you’ll see. All in good time. You know that expression about how you can’t stop progress? We’re giving progress the big green light. Oh yeah. Progress is going to come in and knock this place on its ass.” Then he chuckled and walked away.

That following Monday the UPS guy, the one who always wore his brown shorts even in the coldest weather, delivered four boxes. One of them had a large logo of an apple with a bite taken out of it. He stacked them over in a corner near the water cooler. After he left, Sally MacCrae and I found a moment to examine the boxes.

“What does this mean?” she asked nervously.

“This is what Peter Pepperton and Billy Joe Whiffle talked the boss into,” I said, pointing at the Apple logo. “This is progress come to knock us all on our ass.”

On Tuesday morning we had a visitor. He was a smallish man, perhaps in his mid-thirties, with thin, sandy blonde hair and a pair of thick-lensed spectacles that might easily have weighed five pounds. He wore a white short-sleeved dress shirt with a navy blue tie that had little yellow sailboats embroidered into it. His shirt pocket was absolutely crammed with pens. There were highlighters of every possible hue, along with a black pen, a blue pen, a red pen, a green pen, a purple pen, and a host of other pens to keep them company. The whole left side of his shirt sagged under their weight. He entered our office and looked at us. We looked back at him. Finally I asked, “May I help you?”

“Yes, my name is Charlie Primrose. I’m here to set up the computer.”

“Oh,” I said. For some reason I glanced over toward Big John Mooney. Mooney, who was laying out a brochure for a furniture store, briefly looked up, grinned, said nothing, and resumed his work with an air of perfect nonchalance.

It turned out this computer Charlie Primrose came to set up was to be a grand experiment. Peter Pepperton and Billy Joe Whiffle had argued to the boss that computers were the coming thing: the day was nigh when everything would be done on the them, and the sooner we converted over to the new way, the better it would be for us in the long run. The boss was skeptical and needed to be convinced. He insisted on a demonstration. And there was Charlie Primrose to do just that.

Charlie set up the computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse, mouse pad, printer and scanner on a table in the reception area. The boss came over and surveyed what Peter Pepperton and Billy Joe Whiffle assured him was the future. The black and white monitor resembled a TV and stood on a swivel stand. The keyboard was more or less arranged like an ordinary typewriter keyboard. The computer itself lay beneath the monitor and hummed. The flatbed scanner was placed on the left side of the table and the printer on the right.

“All right people!” called the boss. “Let’s have a meeting. Charlie here is going to run through what this thing can do.”

We all grouped around the table with Charlie sitting before the computer. He adjusted his glasses, cleared his throat and spoke.

“This is a Macintosh computer. I have installed on it several programs that can do everything you’re doing now in this studio. This computer and the programs I mentioned will replace all those drafting tables, T-squares, triangles, X-acto knives, jars of rubber cement, illustration boards, masking tape, the stat camera, overlays, Rapidiographs, compasses, typesetting, french curves, circle templates, brushes, paints, inks, etc., etc. With me so far?”

Big John Mooney snorted a short laugh. I said, “Come on, you can’t be serious.”

Charlie Primrose pointed at a stack of mechanicals next to Mooney’s table. “See those?” he asked.


“All of those will fit on these,” he said, flipping onto the table several small floppy disks.

“Now I know you’re kidding,” I said.

Charlie Primrose was not kidding. We very quickly learned that it was not within Charlie Primrose’s composition to kid. The group of us stood and watched Charlie launch the layout program, and then he swiftly and efficiently showed us how to construct a simple brochure. It was just like magic. After that, Charlie made a simple line illustration in another program, and then in still another program he applied an airbrush effect to it. At the end of his demonstration we were fairly blown away.

“So what do you think?” Charlie Primrose asked while adjusting his glasses.

“This is big,” said Peter Pepperton.

“Really big,” said Billy Joe Whiffle.

“I don’t know what to say,” I said.

“Wow,” said little Sally MacCrae.

Then Big John Mooney spoke. He had been silent all this time, but now he spoke. Things done on a computer look like they’re done on a computer and that’s the problem, Big John Mooney said. Artwork becomes sterile and inherently lacks the beauty and warmth of what is done by hand, he explained. Certainly people who have no talent will think they have found a way into the graphic design field, but, if they delude themselves into believing computers will make up for their shortcomings, they’re sadly mistaken, because if you put crap in, you’ll surely get crap out. Then he tossed in that quote from Thoreau about “improved means toward unimproved ends,” and finished by telling Charlie Primrose he could easily outpace the computer using only conventional means.

“What you say is quite amusing, Mr. Mooney,” Charlie said coolly, “but I suggest it is you who are deluded. Doubtless you are reluctant to give up something you’re very skilled at, which is understandable. But let me assure you, you have no chance against this computer. None whatsoever.”

Big John Mooney suggested it was Charlie Primrose who was at the disadvantage, and in saying so used a figure of speech that made Sally MacCrae blush.

Here the boss intervened. “Look, I have a way to prove it. We’ve got a catalog job that just came into the studio. Let’s say you do it your way, Charlie, and Mooney, you do it yours. Who ever finishes the catalog first proves his point. Charlie, if you win, we’ll buy three more computers. Mooney, if you win, things stay the same. Sound fair?”

Both parties readily agreed.

I mentioned that Big John Mooney had an admirer in Tori Steele, the FOX 25 News at Ten anchorwoman. Somehow or other she caught wind of this challenge and decided to play it up big over the objections of her news director and several of the show’s producers, who remembered all too well her unfortunate proposal of marriage to Mooney the month before. “Our top story tonight,” she announced that night, her ice blue eyes boring straight into the camera’s lens, “It’s Man vs. Machine as Boston area graphic designer John Mooney goes one on one with a computer. Who will win? FOX 25 News will take you there with complete coverage.” Behind her was a graphic of Big John Mooney staring wrathfully into the glow of a computer monitor.

The following morning everyone showed up at the studio: Peter Pepperton, Billy Joe Whiffle, little Sally MacCrae, Big John Mooney, the boss, Charlie Primrose with a couple of assistants, Tori Steele with her make-up artist, hairdresser and camera crew, and, of course, yours truly, good old Mr. Schprock.

“To make things fair,” said the boss when it turned nine o’clock, “we have provided Charlie with a Word file of the copy, while you, Mooney, have the galleys of type already set. You have each been given an identical set of images. The catalog is exactly 180 pages plus cover. Everyone got that? Good! So let’s go!” And with that, the great race began.

Charlie Primrose had, for that day, dispensed with his traditional shirt and tie in favor of a track suit and headband, but still managed to find a place for his many pens and highlighters in the jacket pocket. He had with him a young man by the name of Brent Snodgrass, who loaded images for him into the scanner, and a young woman named Betty Blankenship, with whom Charlie talked strategy. Both Brent and Betty had the same predilection for pens that Charlie had. Brent imitated Charlie’s look from the day before with the white short-sleeved dress shirt and tie combo with bulging pocket. Betty opted for a very becoming pink, shiny, unicorn-themed pencil case with shoulder strap. All in all, they made a formidable trio.

Before swinging into action, Big John Mooney introduced Tori Steele to little Sally MacCrae. They were a study in opposites: Sally, who might not have reached five feet, wore her everyday clothes, while Tori, towering over her in high heels and even higher hair, sported a tight-fitting, pin-striped business suit with linebacker-size shoulder pads. “So you help out around here, do you?” asked Tori Steele, peering narrowly down at Sally. “How . . . nice. Just do me one favor. Try not to lean into the shot too much as we film this, will you? That’s a good girl.” Then she turned on a spiked heel and strode away to speak to her cameraman.

I suppose the best word one can use to describe that day was “intense.” Once work began, things quickly gathered to a fever pitch and never let up. Mooney’s movements became almost impossible trace so fast they became. He ruled the boards, sized the photos and cut up the type in record time. While he worked, Sally fed him pastries and put a straw to his lips for his coffee; later she switched to great chunks of family style bean curd and vegetarian fried rice washed down by bucketfuls of Mountain Dew. He never missed a beat. Peter Pepperton and Billy Joe Whiffle deliberately obstructed progress by faking forgetfulness and incompetence. I caught Billy Joe Whiffle allowing Mooney’s rubber cement bottle and supplies to run dangerously low several times, so, after a brief confrontation with him, I took over. Between that and shooting stats, my hands were full.

The hours wore away, the stack of mechanicals piled higher and higher next to Mooney’s drafting table, and Charlie Primrose clattered away at his keyboard and clicked his mouse while Brent and Betty scurried here and there. Charlie’s printer whirred continuously. I could see it was going to be close judging by the thickness of the printouts pouring out of the machine. I think Mooney could sense it too as he incredibly picked up on a pace that already bordered the superhuman. The clock continued to tick. How would it end? we all wondered. How would it end?

Ah, dear reader, I will tell you how it ended. At first it appeared to be a draw. In the early evening, Mooney put down his T-square at the precise moment Charlie Primrose’s printer shot out his last printout. Everyone was exhausted. Tori Steele and her crew had done three remote reports that afternoon and looked all done in. Sally and I had worn ourselves ragged providing for Big John Mooney while Peter Pepperton and Billy Joe Whiffle made a great show of looking busy and doing nothing. Brent Snodgrass and Betty Blankenship slumped to the floor in unison when the last sheet popped out of the printer. Charlie Primrose allowed his hands to drop limply to his sides as he looked dully into the computer monitor. Big John Mooney wearily rubbed his eyes.

“That’s it?” said the boss, incredulously looking about him. “That’s it? It’s a tie?”

Charlie roused himself as if from a dream. “No, not exactly,” he replied weakly.

“What do you mean?”

Charlie reached into the printer and plucked the last two sheets from it. He handed them to the boss, slumped back into his chair, and immediately passed out.

The boss looked at the printouts. “The business reply card.” he said. Then he turned and stared inquiringly at Big John Mooney. “Mooney, did you do the business reply card?” Mooney’s face registered a blank. He turned to me. “Schprock, did Mooney do the business reply card?”

Alas, Mooney hadn’t done the simple six inch by four inch business reply card. He just didn’t think of it. Nor had I, nor had Sally. And that meant Charlie Primrose won.

The stunned silence that followed was finally ended by Tori Steele curtly announcing to her team, “That’s a wrap, boys.” Her make-up man and hairdresser each uttered a groan of relief. I patted Big John Mooney’s shoulder consolingly with my comparatively tiny hand. “But it was close though, wasn’t it?” I said as cheerily as I could. “On another day you’d have beaten that computer.” A little tear dislodged itself from Sally MacCrae’s eye as she placed her even tinier hand on Mooney’s other shoulder. Peter Pepperton and Billy Joe Whiffle, I plainly saw, could hardly contain their glee.

Big John Mooney packed up all his stuff and left us that night. After the boss had left, and Peter Pepperton and Billy Joe Whiffle and Charlie Primrose and Brent Snodgrass and Betty Blankenship and Tori Steele and Bruce the make-up man and Devon the hairdresser and the whole camera crew had left, everything went back into his enormous suitcase: the giant rubber cement bottle, the six inch X-acto blades, the bread loaf-size kneaded eraser, the three foot compass, everything. I held a sobbing, shaking Sally MacCrae as we watched Mooney sling his colossal T-square over his shoulder and dejectedly walk out through our door for the last time. His massive frame filled the doorway, his T-square gleamed briefly in the hallway light, and then he was gone.

Peter Pepperton and Billy Joe Whiffle might have thought they won something, but the price they paid for their petty victory was having to learn the computer themselves. Billy Joe Whiffle in time gained a proficiency at it, but Peter Pepperton was never any good tapping at the keyboard and clicking the mouse and soon left for somewhere else where progress hadn’t come and knocked it on its ass yet. As it turned out, I actually had a flair for the Mac, and Sally MacCrae, despite a depression that settled in on her and wouldn’t leave, did all right herself. But, as I say, Sally was desperately unhappy. Clearly she had fallen in love with Big John Mooney. Nothing could cheer her up.

One day, after six or seven months went by, Sally MacCrae stopped coming in to work or answering her phone. This was very bad, I thought. At the end of a week, I worriedly drove to her apartment and wound up speaking to Sally’s landlady. This is what she told me: Sally had a received a letter in the largest envelope her landlady had ever seen. The post office needed to tie it to the roof of a mail truck just to deliver it. The stamp itself was roughly the size of a tabloid newspaper. The postmark, the landlady recalled, was from Texas, where, she added significantly, everything was big. Whatever was in that letter must have influenced Sally MacCrae to leave, because the following day she loaded a few necessary items in her Cooper Mini and did just that. And no one, dear reader, has heard from her since.

And Big John Mooney? Strange stories have come in from time to time. Some suspect he might really be reclusive billionaire Sean Rooney, who made a fortune investing in such niche markets as slide rules, 8-track tapes, rotary telephones, Pet Rocks and phonograph players. Others claim he went on to serve as the actual model for the Paul Bunyan Restaurant chain statues that look down upon motorists throughout our fair land. Still others believe he’s the landscaper for the mansion the government secretly provides for Elvis, Big Foot, JFK, Hitler, several extraterrestrials, and the Loch Ness monster. Now, I have no idea whether or not those, or any other speculations, may be correct, but I’ll bet this: that wherever Big John Mooney is, little Sally MacCrae is with him. And, reader, if that is true, I wish them both the greatest happiness in the world.