Jan. 28 - Eighteen years ago today I was twenty years old and working as a busboy at a seafood restaurant in northeastern Massachusetts. I worked lunch shifts.

While on duty I had to wear a pink oxford shirt with black trousers and a bowtie. They didn't call it pink: they called it "salmon." I hated that shirt and I hated the bowtie and I hated the little apron thing I had to wear. I hated the people I worked with and the smell of leftover seafood that clung to me for hours after every shift. But the money wasn't bad and it didn't suck to have baked stuffed shrimp or New England clam chowder for lunch every day.

On this particular day I was in an unusually crappy mood. I don't remember why—maybe I'd been rebuffed by a cute girl at a bar the night before, maybe I hadn't been rebuffed by a girl at a bar the night before who later turned out not to be so cute, or maybe I simply hadn't been to a bar the night before. Whatever the reason, I wasn't in the mood to bus tables for a bunch of picky old ladies and rude businessmen that day. I decided to feign an episode of influenza. It was January, after all. Lunches were pretty slow. I probably wouldn't even have to vomit to get myself released. (Some of the other busboys—and three semesters at acting school—had taught me how to vomit convincingly with a mouthful of chowder.)

And so I strode into the bar with every intent of making a conspicuous demonstration of illness. I worked up a good cough and entered the bar in the throes of a massive coughing jag.

No one looked at me—and that's saying something, because strangely enough the bar was packed: all the waitstaff were in there, the barstaff, the manager, the assistant manager, the hostess, and a handful of luncheon regulars.

They were all craning their necks up at the televisions mounted over the bar.

I couldn't help wondering what in the world could be more interesting than my health, so I glanced up with irritation at the nearest television screen. There was just a "Y" of white smoke against a backdrop of cerulean sky.

"What's that?" I asked.

"The space shuttle."


There was no reply but it was only a matter of seconds before I realized the space shuttle Challenger had just exploded on live television. We all stood there for fifteen or twenty minutes, watching and wondering and feeling pretty badly about the whole thing.

At home that night I remember watching the news and hearing Peter Jennings or someone saying it was a moment that would live forever in the national memory. "We'll all remember where we were and what we were doing as those terrible images unfolded before our very eyes," he said (unless it wasn't him).

And I thought to myself, that means that for the rest of my goddam life I have to remember trying to fake a cold to get out of my dumb-ass busboy job in my stupid salmon shirt and bowtie. If a random event can roll along at any minute and sear every detail of that moment into my memory for ever, then I have got to have better details to remember next time this happens.

Then I went out to a bar with a friend and we met a couple of cute girls, about whom I remember absolutely nothing.

Life is unfair.

* * *

The Patriots were in the Super Bowl that year, too. They lost to the Bears— which is sort of like saying the Challenger "experienced some technical difficulties."

Super Bowl shuffle this, Chicagolanders. . . this is New England's third Super Bowl appearance (and hopefully their second victory) since the Bears whipped them in '85. And the Bears have made it back how many times?

* * *

Al Franken's a big supporter of free speech. That's the reason he gave when asked why he went after a heckler at a Howard Dean rally and body-slammed him to the ground. "I'm neutral in this race but I'm for freedom of speech, which means people should be able to assemble and speak without being shouted down."

Apparently no one thought to ask if he thought freedom of speech also included the right to voice dissent without being physically assaulted. Think Franken would be quite so quick to take down a Bush heckler?

This is why zealots—all zealots—irritate me. They lose their capacity for irony. Even satirists.

Maybe especially satirists.

* * *

Today is the birthday of Elijah Wood (1981), Joey Fatone, Jr. (1977), Sarah McLachlan (1968), Barbi Benton (1950), Alan Alda (1936), Jackson Pollock (1912), Arthur Rubenstein (1887), and Sir Henry Stanley (1841).

It's Democracy Day in Rwanda and King's Name Day in Sweden.

2004, The Moron's Almanac™

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