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Thursday, Nov. 10, 2005 05:56 am

Comb-overs and sensible shoes

Advice for would-be writers

There’s a small celebrity associated with writing words that find public display; for instance, a few folks have asked me for writing advice. Of course, what they mean but are too kind to say is, “I have a wicker chair that can write better than you. I’m 50 times the writer you are, and I can’t get published. How do I get published?”
My advice: Have a conversation with Kurt Vonnegut in 1964. The details are a bit vague because I was, at the time, on a road trip to see a basketball game in Champaign, Ill. Because we were young, and it was 1964, we ended up in a shadowy neighborhood bar in Indianapolis. After four hours we decided to stay put so that the basketball teams might find us.
My three fellow travelers were in the back, inventing a pool game having something to do with the 7-ball, pool-cue limbos, shots of tequila, and 15 bucks. The game was to prove, once and for all, who was the better man. A completely unnecessary contest of course, because they’d asked me to hold the $15, which I was now spending at the bar — proving once and for all that I was the better man. I figured maybe an hour before the winner asked for the cash — plenty of time to resolve the “question at the bar.”
The debate at hand was a debate that can only take place in a neighbor bar, in the blistering cold of winter, midafternoon. My position was that “sensible shoes are to woman as hair comb-over is to man,” whereas my new best friend — the guy I’d just met 15 minutes ago on the stool to my right — contended that it was “Sensible shoes are to woman as baldness is to man.” When my new best friend signaled that he didn’t care to continue the debate (by passing out and letting his one-strand, 3-foot-long comb-over hang to the warped barroom floor), I turned to my new, new best friend — the guy I’d just met on the stool to my left — a rumpled, mop-haired man, drinking vodka, doodling, and chain-smoking Chesterfields: “I believe it would be a better world if newspapers described people by weight rather than by age, as in ‘John Semifargel, 218 pounds, was ticketed for speeding,’ rather than ‘John Semifargel, 36 years old, was ticketed for speeding.’ Your position on the theory?”
“A matter of considerable weight,” answered the mop-haired man, “a weighty question indeed. And I question you back, my friend — must we save the Third World forests?”
“We must,” I contended, “lest we run out of monkey-paw ashtrays!”
“And elephant-foot footstools,” added my new, new best friend. The conversation continued for a while, some of it abiding the well-established convention of afternoon neighborhood bar talk, wherein the parties to the discussion are welcome to precede one party completely independent of the other party. The mop-haired man asked whether he could use the word “pedantic” without being pedantic by using it. Having not a clue what “pedantic” meant, I answered that perhaps we should wait until the basketball teams arrived and ask them. He agreed with the plan. A few minutes later, our enlightened exchange was interrupted by Bugs Eisenberg, the winner of the best-man contest. Bugs was laboring under the illusion that I owed him 15 bucks for some reason. So I poked my previous best friend, still sleeping at the bar, and asked him what he did with the $15 I’d stuffed in his shirt pocket for safekeeping. The comb-over man raised his head a full wobbly inch, surveyed the room through flickering question-mark eyeballs, turned to Bugs, muttered, “As bald is to man,” and then re-signaled that he intended to speak no more on the issue by re-passing out. Bugs wanted more information: “You gave the money to a drunk with a single 3-foot-long hair danglin’ off his head?”
“Because,” I explained, “it was the longest hair I could find.”
Although Bugs dismissed the answer as incomplete, he did agree that he’d likely recoup the $15 once the basketball players arrived and started shootin’ pool, because they were too tall to line up a shot straight on. When I turned from Bugs, Kurt Vonnegut was bundling up to leave. As he left the bar, he handed me a note, with this message scribbled inside a doodled monkey paw: “Your previous best friend was logically correct. Sensible shoes are to woman as baldness is to man, but if you are ever to write the story, ‘Comb-Overs and Sensible Shoes’ is by far the better title.
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