As a year-end roundup, here are some of the most intriguing, alarming and peculiar items featured in The Spike Report during the second half of 2002.
LOLITA GROWS UP
It's no picnic being Amy Fisher, says Amy Fisher.
"To a large degree I began the hardest journey of my life when I emerged from ball-and-chain-land three years ago," says Fisher, who gained tabloid notoriety in 1992 when she shot and wounded the very surprised wife of lover Joey Buttafuoco.
Writing in Long Island free biweekly The New Island Ear (as a prelude to a regular column that debuted in June), Fisher describes a post-pokey life of struggle, poverty and unexpected challenges. "[O]ne day my English professor assigned the topic: Write about an infamous Long Islander," recalls Fisher, who attended college incognito. While many students chose Fisher as their subject, "I, on the other hand, chose Jessica Hahn. I got an A."
CELL PHONE PHONIES
Bad news, Jack. That surprisingly flirtatious hottie at the local bar isn't interested in your sensitive side. She's trying to sell you a cell phone.
According to Wall Street Journal staffer Suzanne Vranica, Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications in July hired 60 slinky actresses and models to lounge around trendy urban bars, striking up conversations that somehow involve the company's new combination cell phone/digital camera. Another initiative in the same campaign (this one dubbed "Fake Tourist") calls for the evil hotties to haunt tourist attractions like the Empire State Building, asking passers-by to take their pictures with the digital doodads.
DINING IN THE DARK
Talk about atmosphere. Patrons of a restaurant in Cologne, Germany can't see what they're eating, or with whom.
After making meal selections in the well lit entrance hall of the Unsicht-Bar ("Invisible Bar"), diners descend into a pitch-black dining room where even luminous watches and cell phones are prohibited, reports Ursula Sautter in Time Magazine's Europe edition. "The Unsicht-Bar's waiters play a particularly important role -- all of them are visually handicapped or completely blind, and they not only serve the meals but act as guides to the stumbling diners," writes the Time correspondent. A similarly Stygian cafe opening soon in Berlin will offer a "dark stage" with audio book premieres, readings and even "blind-date events that truly merit the name."
ENVISIONING NEW YORK
Tickets written for dumping trash and other violations of New York City's environmental laws go far beyond City Hall for processing, reports Robert F. Worth. They wind up in Ghana.
Writing in The New York Times in July, Worth noted that the particulars of the tickets are entered into a digital database by data processors working in the hot and crowded West African city of Accra. Based on its legal code (No loud radios! People must clean up after dogs!), the Big Apple seems like a paradise to these workers. "I know that New York is beautiful: the streets, the flowers, and the people too," said wistful Ghanaian typist Susuana Okine. "I can also testify that it must smell better than Accra."
OFF WITH MY HEAD
St. Paul Pioneer Press theater critic Dominic Papatola has attended many plays. Until August, though, he had never seen one in which the characters on stage called for his demise.
Papatola's famously caustic putdowns of local productions were the inspiration for "Bring Me the Head of Dominic Papatola," a play in which a struggling actress tries to raise $20,000 to have the critic silenced forever. The play is more of a genial romp than a genuinely vicious personal attack, says Papatola, who attended the play's opening night along with members of his family. Still, watching it was something of a surreal experience. "My brother-in-law hooted in what I can only describe as a decidedly nonsupportive manner," writes the critic. "My 73-year-old mother went through the whole endeavor with a glassy-eyed smile."
A "CRUSH" IS BORN
"I realized then that a surfer is always in one of two conditions: wet or about to be wet," writes Susan Orlean.
Orlean's long, lyrical profile of teenage girl surfers on Maui first appeared in Women's Outside magazine in 1998; the piece was very loosely adapted into the film "Blue Crush" that was released this summer. There's no romance in Orlean's article (except between the girls and their boards), no traumatized-but-photogenic heroine and no plotline, but you can see what drew the attention of filmmakers. The girls, from the tiny town of Hana, are depicted as fearless and wild, living only to surf and scarf down junk food, and seemingly unbowed by their bleak futures, one-parent homes and crushing poverty. "To be a surfer girl in a cool place like Hawaii is perhaps the apogee of all that is cool and wild and modern and sexy and defiant," writes Orlean. Helloooo, Hollywood.
TEARS OF A CHICKEN
Bill Plaschke's elegiac tribute to veteran baseball mascot The San Diego Chicken, published in August, was the most peculiar piece of sports journalism I'd seen in quite a while.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Plaschke doesn't just profile Ted Giannoulas, a onetime San Diego State student who has spent the last 29 years clowning with major league players and umpires while wearing a colorful chicken costume. The sportswriter sets out to portray the multimillionaire entertainer as the Willy Loman of professional sports.
"In serving baseball, the San Diego Chicken has become like baseball itself: a brilliant idea, born of innocence, bred with joy, but now struggling to age gracefully through a building cloud of impertinence and indifference," Plaschke rhapsodizes. While entertaining three generations of children, Giannoulas never had kids of his own "because he never had the time."
A FEW GOOD GEEKS
The FBI's attempt to enlist America's top hackers and computer security experts in the war on terrorism may have hit a snag: many of the highly prized geeks are too old, fat or stoned to join up.
The Bureau regularly sends representatives to computer security conferences in hopes of recruiting security experts and hackers as special agents, reports Michelle Delio in Wired, but the FBI's requirement that new agents be college-educated, youthful, drug-free and physically fit has scared off many talented keyboard jockeys. "They will not consider you unless you can carry your M16 through the physical fitness course without killing yourself in the process," gripes veteran computer security expert Mike Sweeny. "Most of the geeks I know view exercise as carrying the 80-ounce cola, pager and cell phone all at the same time."
"I have been an accomplice to the murders of untold numbers of human beings," writes screenwriter Joe Eszterhas.
In a remarkably self-aggrandizing Op-Ed piece published by The New York Times in August, the highly paid writer of such overheated schlock as "Flashdance," "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls" apologized for glamorizing cigarettes in his films. "Smoking was an integral part of many of my screenplays because I was a militant smoker," Eszterhas writes -- but Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan's blistering 1995 review of "Showgirls" ("it [sets] new low standards for demeaning treatment of women on film") suggests that Eszterhas has plenty more to apologize for if he's so inclined.
"CHECK IT OUT AND LOCK IT IN"
Louisiana's "Jewel of the Dial" is gone, and I never got to hear her.
In fact, I had never heard of disc jockey Pearlee Toliver before she passed away on September 9. Toliver's gospel show, heard on a variety of stations during its three-decade tenure, consisted largely of homespun advertisements read in a highly distinctive singsong style and often ending with the suggestion, "Why not check it out and lock it in?"
The Monroe, Louisiana News-Star offers an affectionate obituary of Tolliver and The New York Times quotes an entire broadcast spot, but NPR does even better, offering fantastic audio clips of the one-of-a-kind radio huckster. Why not check it out and lock it in? (Real Audio)
THE PUSH-BUTTON BUGLE
The folks who brought you smart bombs have come up with an even smarter bugle, says the Associated Press.
In a story carried by the San Francisco Chronicle in October, military writer Robert Burns reported that the Pentagon is testing a self-playing bugle for use during military funerals. "Families of honorably discharged veterans are entitled to a two-person uniformed funeral honor guard, the folding and presentation of the U.S. flag and a rendition of taps," writes Burns. A chronic shortage of military musicians has inspired the creation of a bugle that anyone can appear to be playing, thanks to a built-in digital audio device.
"In addition to the very high quality sound, it provides a dignified 'visual' of a bugler playing taps, something families tell us they want," boasts deputy assistant secretary of defense John M. Molino. The Pentagon plans to solicit comments from funeral attendees ("This is humiliating," comes to mind) before expanding the autobugle program.
TOWNSHEND ON COBAIN
Kurt Cobain's newly-published journals are "the scribblings of a crazed and depressed drug-addict" in desperate need of help, says veteran rocker Pete Townshend.
In a strikingly personal and melancholy book review for the UK Observer, Townshend says he finds little of Cobain's genius in his journals. "These are the scribblings of a once beautiful, angry, petulant, spoiled, drug-addled middle-class white boy from a divorced family who just happened, with the help of two of his slightly more stable peers, to make an album hailed as one of the best rock records ever," Townshend writes. He also confesses that he was asked to help steer Cobain away from a growing heroin addiction in 1993, but didn't take action. The younger musician committed suicide the following year.
NO WAY TO JUDGE
Judging the National Book Awards is easy if you don't bother to read the books.
That's the discovery Michael Kinsley seems to have made after he agreed to be one of five judges deciding the recipient of this year's National Book Award for nonfiction. In a startling essay posted in November, Slate's founding editor says he simply ignored most of the nominated books, leaving the selection of finalists to his fellow judges. His admission drew an angry response from the head of the panel on which Kinsley sort-of served. "[Kinsley] has demeaned not only the hard work of his fellow judges, but also the winner of this year's award...," fumes Christopher Merrill. "His failure to read more books represents an abdication of responsibility -- and a cynicism about the literary enterprise."
DANCES WITH STRUDEL
Forty thousand Germans like to dress up and pretend to be Native Americans, writes James Hagengruber in Salon.
The surprisingly widespread German fascination with American Indians can be traced back to Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which toured Europe in 1896, says Hagengruber. "For me, I guess, it's mostly because of their art," says a semiconductor technology engineer whose unfortunate children are named Buffalo Robe and Winona. "For many others, they have the dream of riding a horse on the prairie with the wind in their hair."
THE DEATH OF SUPERCAR
In 1993, amid much fanfare, President Bill Clinton and the heads of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors announced a bold and ambitious goal: to develop a family car capable of getting 80 miles to the gallon. Nine years and billions of taxpayers' dollars later, Supercar is dead.
The failure of the Supercar effort "stands as a sobering reminder of the forces arrayed against greater fuel efficiency and a cleaner environment," wrote Sam Roe in a series of forceful articles published in the Chicago Tribune in December. Corporate greed and government incompetence scuttled the project, says Roe; now, "the average fuel economy for new passenger vehicles on U.S. roads is the worst in 20 years, largely because of consumers? increasing desire for gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks."
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