Thursday, October 13, 2005

Twenty questions minus eight questions

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During the mayoral debate between Mayor Edward M. Lambert Jr. and F. George Jacome on Thursday, there was a brief but horrifying moment when the fate of the entire city and everyone in it, from the children to the children's children's children, rested on my shoulders. Yes. Mine. It's all about me. Again.

The tension is difficult to describe without a 60-piece orchestra, but I'll try.

The scene: the hallowed auditorium of one Bradford Matthew Chaloner Durfee High School. Lights: dim. Crowd: abuzz. Me: in the front row, unkempt hair spreading out from under my ball cap like a shag carpet under a coffee table. I was probing a hole in the upholstery of my seat for loose change. The podiums stood speechless upon the stage like wooden sentinels of Easter Island as waves of political intrigue washed through the air and receded, leaving behind the exposed seashells and scuttling rock crabs of rumor and hearsay in their wake.

The debate was sponsored by this newspaper. So I was there in an unofficial capacity as Court Jester. I had been prepared to leap into the breach should one of the candidates break a rib laughing at the other guy, or be suddenly stricken with dysentery as he waded through the toxic slurry of his own bullshit campaign promises. My job: seize a microphone and fill the ensuing dead air with timely political humor until everyone could be safely escorted from the building. Like the one about President Bush, who goes to his Cabinet meeting one day and goes, "Gimme the day's top news," and Condoleezza Rice goes, "Mr. President, three Brazilian soldiers were killed early this morning." So Bush goes--

But before I could tweak the punch line in my notebook, my editor leans over to me, whispering over the cacophonous beast-howls of a crowd impatient for blood.

My editor said one of the four panelists still hadn't shown up. It was about six minutes to 7, the start of the debate.

"You feel like asking some questions?" she said.

I stared forward at a point a half-inch from my nose. "Urg," I said. "Sure. I don't have any questions prepared, but sure."

She stood up and walked away.

At that moment I snapped my notebook shut and began to beat myself with it about the face and neck. Then, gathering my wits into the folds my apron, I realized that I'm the executive city editor. I read the paper every day. I know pretty much everything there is to know about both candidates' platforms. I should be able to ask a few measly questions.

So with five minutes to showtime, I opened my notebook and wrote. With blinding speed, my pen danced across the page, and out flowed some of the most pressing and cleverly crafted debate questions since Lincoln-Douglas, without all the slavery
references. And in shorthand, too. Here's the thing: I don't even know shorthand.

Here are my questions, as I wrote them:

-- Mr. Mayor, what's it like to be the leader of the free world?

-- I'll address this question to Mr. F. George Jacome. So what's with the F?

-- What would you do, as mayor, to put a stop to all this damn rain?

-- Two-part question, sir. Do your plans for ridding the city of Hess LNG's liquefied natural gas terminal include stringing the proposed site with toilet paper and leaving a flaming bag of dogshit on the doorstep? And if not, why has the Jacome campaign not looked into this as a cheap and hilarious tool in the city's arsenal?

-- Regarding the city's failing public education system, Mr. Mayor, why is our kids getting more stupider?

-- You got a little more old-looking since the last election, Mr. Jacome. More gray hairs on the sides, there and there. I suppose this isn't actually a question.

-- Mr. Mayor, you spent years fighting a costly court battle to keep Oliver's Restaurant in the North End from becoming a strip club. Why are so uncomfortable with the naked female body?

-- Why did you choose to run on the "City of the Child" platform, Mr. Jacome, when you and I know very well that children are among the least-active voters?

-- Mr. Mayor, can I try on your glasses?

-- An attorney specializing in eminent domain law has said to this newspaper that taking the Hess LNG site would be an expensive mistake doomed to failure. You said he's "misinformed," and are vowing to try it anyway. Like I said, he's an attorney specializing in eminent domain law. You went to school to learn how to play the piano. So my question is, do you remember when you were a kid and you'd interrupt your parents having a conversation, and they'd say, "Shush, honey, the big people are talking"? Isn't this one of those times?

-- Your challenger has accused your administration of maintaining its hold on city government for five terms by relying on cronyism, patronage and intimidation. A very burly man wearing a Lambert button has informed me that I'm not allowed to ask the rest of this question.

-- As a fellow Portuguese man, Mr. Jacome, I have an important question. The entire city needs to know: Benfica or Sporting?

By the time I was finished jotting down my questions, it was all for naught. The fourth panelist showed up just on time. The crowd at the debate would never hear the answers to my -- nay, our -- questions. And me? I sat in the front row and helped the official timekeeper reset her stopwatch.

And nobody there even got to hear the joke.

Until now.

So President Bush goes: "Wait -- how many is three brazillion?"

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