The Philosopher King Caper:
From the Casebook of Mike Freeman, America’s Only Truly Liberated Detective

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Normally I don’t take cases like this. But what’s normal about a geek named John Q. Public who has 1.7 kids, 2.2 cars and is between the ages of 18 and 35? When I arrived that morning he was already wearing out what was left of the carpet in the lobby.

My secretary had the day off — in fact, given our recent dispute about the constitutionality of the minimum wage, she had the rest of her life off — so after the introductions I let him into the office myself and sat him down in one of the two beautifully appointed folding chairs. Demographer’s dream or not, he was shaking like a paint mixer, except that there were no metallic clamps holding his five-gallon, flat enamel head in place. Suddenly tears and words came pouring out of him in a rush of pent-up emotion.

“I don’t know if I can take it any more, Mr. Freeman,” he sobbed.

“Call me Mike,” I said, “and you don’t have to take it, whatever ‘it’ is.” I reached into the bottom desk drawer and offered him a well-preserved quart of Old Granddad. But neither of us could unscrew the lid from the specimen jar, and the sight of Old Granddad’s gaze following us around the room from behind 32 ounces of formaldehyde was pretty creepy, so I put the jar back.

“I think I’m going nuts,” he said. “Either that or there’s a secret government conspiracy to drive me nuts. But that sounds crazy, doesn’t it?”

“Not in my book.” I handed him a copy of my book and helped him find the index entry for “Nuts, government trying to drive you.”

“I seem to have split into two disparate personalities,” he continued.

“No crime there, unless neither of your personalities can afford $200 a day, plus expenses.” He grinned.

“Nothing like that. You see, according to every newspaper editorial writer in the country, when I go into a polling place, I’m a philosopher king.”

“So?” I lit up a menthol Philosopher King and blew a smoke ring at the miniature plastic hula girl holding down the loose papers on my desk.

“So in an election year, they always say I combine the practical wisdom of Aristotle with the democratic idealism of Thomas Jefferson. Plus they assume I’ve read more history than Arnold Toynbee, I question everything, I’m familiar with all the issues, I’ve written my own position papers, I can recite the party platforms backwards, and I’ve taken the time to get to know each of the candidates personally. Naturally, I assume the same about them.”

“Naturally. Aside from your almost crippling sense of self-effacement, however, what’s the problem?”

“It’s what happens when I leave the voting booth and walk into the supermarket, Mike. According to these same editorial writers, as soon as I stop voting for politicians and start voting with my wallet, I instantly lose 100 IQ points. My mind goes blank. My will withers away. I shuffle like an extra from Night of the Living Dead, helplessly controlled by whatever blatantly commercial propaganda flashes in front me. A cartoon dromedary can cause me to inhale poisoned narcotic air. An action movie merchandising tie-in can convince me that a shooting spree is the best way to resolve all conflicts. The richest man in the world can get me to give him more of my money in exchange for a software package that barely works. In short, I become a drooling idiot with no moral center.”

“That is a problem, unless you are by profession a newspaper editorial writer,” I said. He shook his head sadly.

“I’m just a humble marriage broker. Although I’ve just bought a controlling interest in Larry King,” he added with a touch of pride.

“Let’s leave the sordid details of your job out of this and concentrate on the relevant facts, Mr. Public. As a citizen and voter, it appears you are proud, brilliant and independent — what was your phrase? — a philosopher king straight out of Plato’s Cave.”

“That’s right…if you believe all the newspaper editorial writers.”

“Like gospel. Yet these same infallible moral lighthouses say that as a consumer, you are a blind cave salamander, a quivering worm, a helpless, ignorant moron incapable of choosing a breakfast cereal without the aid of a corrupt, inefficient, multi-billion-dollar bureaucracy.”

“That’s it in a nutshell, Mike. Can you solve this one?”

“It’s not a one, it’s a two,” I said.

“Huh?”

“A dichotomy. There’s no mystery here. You suffer from Bipolar Buying-Voting Dementia, like every good American. When you vote, you’re a genius and whatever you decide is always the best of all possible worlds. When you buy, you’re a low-grade numskull who must be protected from himself at all costs. Oddly enough, that makes you two completely separate individuals who live in the same body yet have nothing to do with each other — unless you happen to be buying votes. Then you are still a genius, but an evil genius.”

“Sounds awful. What can I do?”

“Simple. Take this handy portable voting booth that I keep around the office for emergencies just like yours. Strap it to your back, carry it with you at all times, and you’ll always be a voter imbued with the wisdom of the ages, not a consumer imbued with the imbecility of the marketplace. And you’ll never feel like a bumbling, incompetent yahoo again … until you get married.”

“That’s very generous of you, Mike, but are you sure you won’t be needing this yourself?” I chuckled softly.

“You forget this is Chicago, Mr. Public. You have to be dead 20 years before they’ll let you vote. By my count I’ve still got 14 years to go. Anyway, I gave up voting when I realized it was worse for my health than smoking Cuban cigars, drinking Everclear and playing Russian roulette.”

“You mean I’ve got to wear this thing for two whole decades?” he yelped. “But when do I get to pull the lever?”

“If that’s all that’s troubling you, I suggest you take the next flight to Las Vegas. They’ll let you pull all the levers you want. It’s almost exactly like voting, except the odds are better, they take less of your money and at least you get a few laughs along the way.”

He looked as happy as Nick Nolte’s dealer.

“Gosh, Mike, how can I ever repay you?”

“I prefer bright shiny new Krugerands, but I’ll settle for some old-fashioned silver dollars,” I replied.

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Diary Of A Grocery Cart

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May 11: Oh, I am shining. I am glistening with hope. Here I am in the tractor-trailer with all of my shining, glistening comrades making our way to a Piggly Wiggly in Penopshaw, Indiana. After all of my time dreaming about this day, it has finally come. I am going to be of service to the common man. I will wheel over asphalt and tile to carry his or her burdens, help families provide sustenance, to be an integral part of the Capitalist system — I am the future of grocery transportation devices. No higher calling could I think of.

May 13: I thought that being at the end of the truck meant I would be one of the first fresh carts for customers to make use of. Instead, they took us off one by one, and I was jammed deep into the far recesses of Backup Cart Storage Area #2A in the plastic-covered, dirt-floored side lot of the store. I am not discouraged, though. This is giving me ample opportunity to drink in all aspects of my new life. Sure, I share my space with the over-ripe fruit disposal container. But, who said the life of a hard-working grocery cart would be all soft loaves of Wonderbread and bright bags of Cheetos. I feel lucky to have this time to watch the veritable ballet of fruitflies dancing around me. I will be patient. My day will come.

May 21: Today I was moved to the main backup cart storage area at the front of the store. Oh, the bright lights, the bustling murmur of customers entering and leaving the store. I am almost sure I can hear the laughter in their voices as they wheel other carts from the store ladened with their freshly bought grocery items. That is the good news. The bad news is that my back right wheel is almost completely covered in some sort of sticky brown muck with a gum wrapper stuck to it. I fear that I may be unbalanced – that if someone takes me, they may reject me — because who wants to push a cart that wobbles. I will keep my hopes high as best I can.

May 23: Today I was outfitted with an advertisement card on my child seat. I’m happy because it means I’m being suited up for my first foray into the store. It means I’m finally getting my chance. Unfortunately, the downside is that I feel as though the message on the advertisement — “Wiggle Your Way To Great Savings At Piggly Wiggly!” — makes my mucked up rear wheel more apparent with the “wiggle” reference and all. I know paranoia is a drink best taken in sips. I mustn’t let this damage my excitement. I will hope that no one will make the connection.

May 24: It was a bit of wait, but I’m in! It was a busy Saturday so this morning I was moved into the main cart station. After a number of people started to roll me into the store and abandoned me after noticing my wobbly wheel — I was given the opportunity to assist a family of six. As they loaded me up with Tang and butterscotch pudding, I bopped along with the muzak version of “Losing My Religion”. I was overflowing with abundance. I think I’m going to like it hear. What am I talking about? I do like it here.

June 14: Children — God bless them — should not be allowed to be unsupervised in a cart. It says so on the placard near the front door. This one little tyke who was fond of a can of strained peaches, decided to take out his latent aggressions on me by pounding the can on my frame. The damage wasn’t too bad — a few dents and chipped coating. I hope it doesn’t rust. I will soldier on, though. Despite my shredded finish, I will finish my job. Despite my disappointment, I will not disappoint.

August 28:

Shakespeare once wrote:

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us

And, I almost told this fat guy about his apparent vice — gluttony. “Hey, buddy! Didn’t you hear that cola can take the rust off of metal? It turns your teeth into dust. Do you really think you can drink twenty cases of cola in a week and not have your stomach dissolve? It will dissolve or my name isn’t A Shopping Cart.”

August 29: I want to apologize, Diary, for my entry yesterday. It was the week before Memorial Day and I had been constantly out in the store and in the lot for seven days straight. My head’s clearer now. I am clearer now. I will not get upset like that again. Because my head is clearer now. I am relaxed.

September 4: Those scummy little punks! Last night, near closing, a group of rogue juveniles nabbed me as I sat out at the side of the store. Who parents these violent and untamed youths? They took me for a joy ride — deciding it would be fun to slam me into the sides of buildings. I lost a wheel in the vestibule of the pet food store. Then, these desperate youths dragged me out to the copse of woods behind the store and shoved me into the swamp. As I write this now, I’m half-buried in mud. In the dim murky distance I can see the inert outlines of other carriages. I am sure they are covered in rust, I can smell it from here. I’m trying to keep my hopes up — at least mosquitoes don’t bite metal.

September 6: I’m still trapped in this viscous swamp. But, I continue to pray for the best. It is difficult. I fear I may be too far from the store to find my way back alone. At night, I have fever-dreams of families in the store juggling produce and meats in their arms, entire rounds of cheese, sausage links, and celery stalks crashing to the floor in a dirty and distasteful floor salad. I could be there right now. I could be helping them.

September 8: I am guessing, at this point, that the Cart Organizer, Ben, will not come looking for this lost member of his flock. I remember thinking him lazy when I first laid eyes upon him and now I know for sure. I write this now knowing I will never make it back home. I was so ready a few short months ago to fill my open carriage with the bounty of life that lines the well-stocked shelves of Piggly Wiggly. Now, all I am left with are boxes of shattered dreams, cans of disillusionment, and bags of lost hopes. So please remember me faithful reader, whoever you may be. Remember me for my once steely optimism. Remember me for the corners I turned — despite handicaps. Remember me, world. And sing out my name. Sing out A Shopping Cart.

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Quiet, Please!

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Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Cat’s Club. I’d like to introduce our band, we’re Rick Soloway on bass, Kit Richter on drums, and myself Mike Blaine on piano. Before we get started I’d like to go over a simple ground rule we have for playing out. We ask that you observe a strict silence during our performance. I don’t want to hear anybody ordering food or drink, or any talking or laughing, or any cell phones ringing, or any ice cubes clinking in glasses. It’s time to pay respect to this great music we call jazz. The least disturbance may interfere with our concentration and make it impossible for us to play. Up front in the red jacket, what is your name, sir? Are you the performer here tonight? Then why are you talking so much? You haven’t stopped talking since we came out on stage. Listen up, people. If the band doesn’t get a respectful silence, we ain’t going to play a note. It’s that simple. You want to talk or order food, go elsewhere. All right. Umm, hmm, piano seems to be in tune. We’d like to kick off the set with a Monk number, one of several of Monk’s we plan to play this evening. It’s called ‘Ruby, My Dear.’ Gentlemen, one, two…who is strangling? I think a man whose breathing is that labored should go to the hospital right now. He may require medical treatment that is not available here at Cat’s where a world-class jazz trio is trying to perform. You were just clearing your throat, sir? I see. And are you finished now? Right, then let’s take it again. One, two…yeah, this time we’re into it. It’s smooth, isn’t it? I like to make the high notes twinkle like stars in the night sky. And so far you’re silent, which is good. I myself talk over the band, as you can see, but then it’s my gig. Okay, everyone stop playing. Who’s snapping their fingers? Oh you’re just “getting into” the music, ma’am? Have you joined our band as our new timekeeper? No? Okay then, knock it off. That is a total distraction. How would you like it if I went to your job or to your house and snapped my fingers in front of your coworkers or your guests without the least inhibition and all out of sync? I’m thinking you wouldn’t like it very much. We’re going to pick it up at the drum solo, and I don’t want to hear anyone so much as sniff. One, two…yeah, that’s got it. Digging it there, digging it. Get in on that cymbal. All right, stop right there. You, at the table by the steps. Did you toss a Styrofoam cup down those steps? Did you or did you not, is what I’m asking. You did drop a Styrofoam cup down the steps, but it was an accident? Man, with the acoustics in this place, that cup was audible next door. I could hear a “pock!” each time it bounced off a step. Each one of those “pocks!” cut into my brain like a gunshot. People, you simply have no idea what damage you’re inflicting on my nervous system. I get a distinct pang when I play before people who have no self-control, who are ill-mannered as children, who have no regard for the majesty and sanctity of the music we bring to them, and no respect for the musicians who, often at great personal sacrifice, dedicate their lives to bringing forth the finest jazz sounds of which a musical conglomerate is capable. We’re going to try this one more time, but let me remind you that we’re under no obligation to perform for ingrates and savages. Thank you, I appreciate your consideration this evening. One, two…yeah, okay we’re cookin’. We’re swingin’. This is my favorite part here. This is my favorite part that you, lady back there, just ruined by calling for your check. Everybody stop. I would gladly have paid for the cocktails and dinner of everyone here if only I could have been assured that no one would ruin our performance by calling for their check. Oh you thought you did it as quietly as possible? It sounded to me like you were screaming for you life. Do you know what? We’re leaving now. You save your “aw’s” and “come on’s” for someone else. This ain’t no James Brown act, we’re finished, there’s no coming back. Goodnight. And hold your applause. Nothing upsets me more than applause.

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A Short Interview With Larry Sandwich, Health Nut

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INTERVIEWER: Good evening, Mr. Sandwich.

LARRY SANDWICH: Good evening.

INTERVIEWER: How long have you been a health nut?

LARRY SANDWICH: Well, let’s see … as long as I can remember. And I can remember pretty far back, let me tell you. Hell, I remember the dinosaurs. Remember those? Huge gray nasty things with long snouts, always stealing your peanuts…

INTERVIEWER: Peanuts? I think you may be thinking of elephants.

LARRY SANDWICH: Is that what they were? I do remember thinking, “Why are all these dinosaurs here at the circus?”

INTERVIEWER: Tell me, Mr. Sandwich. Do you exercise?

LARRY SANDWICH: I’ll level with you, Steve. Can I call you Steve?

INTERVIEWER: My name’s Barbara.

LARRY SANDWICH: OK, Barbara. I’ll level with you. I’m a big proponent of visualization. I put on my workout togs — a tracksuit, tennis shoes, a sweatband — and I go into my den, and I light up a cigar, and I sit in my big orange beanbag chair, and I picture myself jogging. I can visualize for hours.

INTERVIEWER: You have a beanbag chair?

LARRY SANDWICH: Yes, an orange one. But, then, I’m an expert. If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend something less intense than orange, maybe a light green or a burgundy. After all, I don’t want people hurting themselves.

INTERVIEWER: Very prudent, Mr. Sandwich. Do you eat junk food?

LARRY SANDWICH: I do. Trying to do anything else with it is a fool’s game. When I was young and naive, I made a yacht out of Ring Dings. The thing sank like a brick. My wife, Bernice, went down with the damn thing. Always loved Ring Dings, the poor dear. The yacht was my anniversary present to her. More recently, I made a hat out of Twinkies, but a bird ate it.

INTERVIEWER: Were you wearing it at the time?

LARRY SANDWICH: I certainly was. I was walking along, minding my own business, when all of a sudden, out of the sky, nibble nibble nibble!

INTERVIEWER: Well, I’m sorry to hear that.

LARRY SANDWICH: Oh, it was a beautiful Twinkie hat. Just beautiful! In fact, I named it Bernice in honor of my dead wife. Now, alas, they’re both gone.

INTERVIEWER: You’ve had a difficult life, Mr. Sandwich.

LARRY SANDWICH: Yes, it’s been quite an ordeal. And mostly because I didn’t eat junk food. If I’d just gorged on those Ring Dings, my wife would be here today. And if I’d scarfed down those Twinkies, I’d never have had to endure the grief of having my favorite hat eaten by a sparrow.

INTERVIEWER: One last question. You mentioned smoking earlier. Isn’t smoking unhealthy?

LARRY SANDWICH: I’ve found that if you put the lit end of a cigar in your mouth and touch it with the tip of your tongue, it hurts a lot. I would say that doing that is not at all healthy. In fact, I’ve stopped doing it altogether.

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