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Richard Stevenson

Tongue tied

Chapter 1

The 24-across clue was ' 'The Oblong Box' writer,' and the answer was looming just over the hazy horizon of my Friday-morning mind when the man in the Amtrak seat next to me whipped out his cellphone, punched in some numbers, and announced,

'Ed, it's Al.'

I looked up from the folded-in-quarters arts section of the Times and said to the back of the seat ahead of me, 'Ed, it's Al.'

Missing just a fraction of a beat, Al said, 'I'm on the train. I'll see Quinn when I get there, and I'm having lunch with Margaret Wills.'

While Al listened to Ed's reply, I said, 'I'm on the train. I'll see Quinn when I get there, and I'm having lunch with Margaret Wills.'

Al peered over at me, and I peered back. Then he told Ed, 'Listen, there's a guy in the seat next to me who…'

Like a simultaneous-translation whiz at the UN, I was right behind him. 'Listen, there's a guy in the seat next to me who…'

I grinned as I said it, and Al's look of annoyance was turning to apprehension. This would make a good story when he met Quinn and then when he dined with Margaret Wills-'Would you believe, I was sitting next to this prick on the train who…'-but for now it must have been starting to seem to Al that I could be dangerous.

'Hang on a second,' Al told Ed. He gathered up his laptop, flipped up and secured his tray table, stood, retrieved his nicely folded suit jacket from the overhead rack, and looked my way but avoided eye contact. He muttered, 'Asshole,' and strode up the aisle with his belongings.

Al found an aisle seat near the front of the car, where he disappeared from view if not entirely from earshot. Over the next few minutes, I still caught a word from time to time over the train's low whoosh and steady clickety- clack, although now Al was another unlucky passenger's voluble neighbor.

I went back to the crossword puzzle, but the 'Oblong Box' writer's name was still beyond my reach. It was just three letters and should have been obvious. Amy Tan?

Carolyn See? It didn't sound like either one. Myrna Loy? Eddie Foy? Not writers.

I jumped down to 26-across: 'spawn.' Again, three letters. Kid? Doubtful. The Times puzzle makers could be slangy, but never imprecise.

I gazed out the window at the broad Hudson flying by, the blue Catskills hazy beyond the far shore. We sped south past a tanker pushing upstream to Albany, fuel for the state office workers' Subarus and minivans and the Pataki administration limos. A shirtless man and a woman wearing a green halter and red headband paddled downriver in a yellow canoe closer in to the near shore. The mountains across the water lolled like hippos in the July sun.

Another couple of words flew back from noisy Al, and I wondered how long it would take before Amtrak felt enough customer pressure and segregated cellphone yakkers the way it once had smokers. Would mounting numbers of letters and phone calls do it, or would a media-worthy 'incident' trigger the regulations? Poughkeepsie -

A Schenectady man was roughed up by three Amtrak passengers, and his cellular telephone flushed down the lavatory toilet by a fourth.. ..

Or would public cellphone high-decibel palaver come to be seen as a First Amendment issue, with the Supreme Court forced eventually to rule on what ought to be a question not of constitutional law but of manners, and with the ACLU left in the awkward position of defending not endangered free speech but mere pains in the ass?

The question of genuine social harm versus simple obnoxiousness was of more than passing interest to me, for I was about to-maybe-take on as a client a man six or eight million Americans considered an exhilarating breath of fresh air, while others-I was one-thought of him as, if not a social menace, then certainly a tiresome gasbag.

Like cellphone boorishness, the caustic iconoclasm of Jay Plankton-'the J-Bird' to his radio fans-seemed to me a social phenomenon to be avoided but no threat to the republic. I even knew intelligent and perfectly sane people who found Plankton delightful-none of them black or gay, although more of them women than I could readily comprehend.

And unlike Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, both basically entertainers with a crude gimmick-bathroom and sex jokes in the one case, inflaming hinterland right-wingers in the other-the J-Bird actually seemed to hold convictions, however confused and ill-informed. He regularly lured public figures, sometimes elected officials, onto his 7-to-10-A.M. show, where they spoke more candidly-or at least with a more shrewd approximation of candor- than they did in other public venues. And they engaged in the uniquely American form of humor that's the democratic alternative to Shavian wit, guys joshing one another.

Plankton did, however, maintain such a gift for sour invective-people he didn't like were 'diseased toads' and 'maggot mouths' and 'lying sacks of bull puke'-that some of his targets or their admirers occasionally became furious. And his rants, egged on by an on-air claque of like-minded but less talented men whose job opportunities elsewhere might have been limited, sometimes even triggered physical threats against the J-Bird.

That's where I came in. Plankton's producer had learned of a minor encounter I'd once had with a radical group, the Forces of Free Faggotry, that had been making the J-Bird's life miserable for several months and now threatened to make it even worse. Would I, could I, go to work for this man? Maybe not, although I was curious to learn what the FFF was up to, and of course to get a firsthand look at a widely popular man I couldn't stand. So here I was, headed south at seventy-eight miles an hour, eight seats back from Al, and flummoxed by 24- across.

The FFF, I thought, had fallen apart sometime in the seventies. And yet apparently it was back, a band of self- described queer revolutionaries in the era of Will amp; Grace. The cognitive dissonance was considerable-or would have been if I hadn't listened to the J-Bird's show the day before and renewed my appreciation of how this guy might inspire violent rage in some people.

The FFF had not been violent in its earlier incarnation; in the late sixties and early seventies the group specialized in rescuing young gays and lesbians from mental institutions their parents had put them in to have them 'cured' of their homosexuality. The FFF had employed brash and sometimes illegal methods, but all the viciousness had been on the other side. It seemed unlikely that the old FFFers had at this late date turned into cryptoterrorists-most revolutionaries mellow in middle age-but the J-Bird seemed to think they had.

I gave the crossword puzzle a rest from its exertions, and by the time I made my way back to my seat with a foam cup of Amtrak's extraordinarily rich and flavorful coffee, the train, due in at Penn Station in forty minutes, was close enough to the city for me to pick up the J-Bird's show on Timothy Callahan's radio.

This was the radio with earphones that Timmy used when he lounged on the deck behind our Crow Street house in Albany on warm summer Friday evenings to listen to the concerts broadcast from Tanglewood. He used the earphones because, he said, the neighbors might not be as crazy about Schumann as he was. In his consideration for others, an admirable anachronism was Callahan. Of course, he also relied on the earphones to mask the sounds of neighbors with stereos who were more in tune with the times than he was, and of the carrying-on around our kitchen table whenever I could lure in the elderly lesbian couple who lived two doors down the street for a raucous game of hearts.

'Gore is ridiculous, just ridiculous, and that… that smirking, no-good weasel Bush is no better…' The J-Bird was in hyperrant, his famous barroom-loudmouth-at-2-A.M. slurred snarl at full throttle. 'I might not vote at all. I might just… leave the country before I pull the switch for either one of those two… sorry losers.'

To the approving chortles of his studio buddies-the newsreader, the sports reporter, and two other attendants whose roles were murkier-Plankton fumed on. He had supported John McCain and Bill Bradley in the spring primaries, and the J-Bird was beside himself with frustration over the electorate's having been left to choose

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