DUSTIN HOFFMAN

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CHRISTMAS QUIET

HERE COMES MR. FRIENDLY!

If you know only one thing about Iowa, you know it’s famous for its potatoes. Or, that it’s the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk.

You’d be wrong about the potatoes — you’re thinking of Idaho — but right about Kirk.

If you know two things about Iowa, you know it’s incredibly flat. That’s partly true, but not around Dubuque, where I used to live.

One time there, while driving on a steep and narrow hillside road, a huge truck suddenly barreled around the bend — straddling the center line and closing in fast. I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes. What I saw, painted on the panel above the truck’s cab, was a cheerful cartoon character and his jaunty slogan, “Here comes Mr. Friendly!”

I was staring Death in the face — and Death was smiling back. And waving.

I laughed out loud.

We’ll meet again one day, I know. Maybe not in the land of Captain Kirk and imagined potato fields, but somewhere.

See you then, Mr. Friendly.

AL’S PIZZA WAGON

After college, I spent a year working at a pizza place near campus. I still saw lots of college friends — which was nice. But I was filling their deep-dish needs instead of hanging out — which was awkward.

The conversations in the kitchen were less than sparkling.

We talked a lot about pizza: The time our delivery guy backed over an order but still delivered it, tire tracks and all; or the time someone called to complain that her pizza was covered with staples.

I worked with one guy who looked like Beck. Our conversations occasionally veered away from pizza.

I might mention a comedian I’d seen on TV. If he’d heard of the comedian, and liked him, he’d express his admiration by saying, “That guy oughta be shot. He oughta be shot!” And, if he disliked the comedian: “That guy oughta be shot. He oughta be shot!”

Although his inflection never varied, I always knew exactly who he liked and who he didn’t. He was a masterful communicator.

You think I’m kidding.

EYEWITNESS TO HISTORY

I was in high school when it happened.

The shades were down, and we were watching a film, when a girl screamed in the hallway. It wasn’t a giggly, goofing-off, caught-by-the-wrestling-coach kind of scream. Something was wrong.

Our teacher went to investigate, and returned quickly, looking shaken.

“Don’t panic!” he told us. “Just stay calm, and go to your next class.”

We filed out nervously. The hallway was empty. But, through the double doors that led outside, we could see everything had changed.

The sky was black as night. Not cloudy, or hazy, or stormy — absolutely pitch black.

“Did the sun burn out?” we wondered. “Maybe it exploded.” What other explanation could there be?

The world would soon be ending, we decided. Our days obviously were numbered.

Turns out, you know, we were right. But this was before CNN or the Web, so the news never really got around.

It made the local papers.

JAMES EARL JONES

TOUGH TIMES AT OUR DOORSTEPS

A story pitch by Greg Williams and Eric Williams

As the economy worsened, and millions of Americans nervously watched their 401(k) plans, we wondered about the toll our financial crisis has had on those whose lives and livelihoods are closely tied to a 401 K.

401 K Street, that is.

Turning to Google Street View, we identified a diverse cross-section of locales — private homes and apartment blocks, a Hilton hotel, a downtown pharmacy, a massage-therapy day spa and a church — each of which shared the same familiar street address.

From Anchorage to Ardmore, from Sacramento to Washington, D.C., what has been the impact of the recession on our country’s 401 Ks? And what could we learn from the stories that might emerge?

Google Street View gallery HERE.

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