Bob Greene must scorn the scientists over at Fermilab, scrambling every day to fit their knowledge of the world into a single, consistent theory. Bob accomplished that feat long ago, cramming every last fact and press release into a lone unified principle: The World Is Bad.
That one thought informs everything Bob writes. Moreover, it allows him to stuff the resulting columns into a pattern as predictable, simplistic, and rigid as Niels Bohr's old model atom, with its precise shells ringing the nucleus. Bob's model column goes like this: Bad Fact A; Bad Fact B; Bad Fact C; Reprise of Bad Fact A. Let's apply this schema to a typical column, his August 23 blurt of fear and defeat, "Our bitter new national anthem."
Bad Fact A: car alarms, "the nightly American symphony...a song that's heard every day and every night." What most people consider an occasional annoyance Bob sees as the death rattle of civilization, a dirge "screaming" out over his "chain-locked, access-carded, double-bolted world." Blade Runner Bob.
Bad Fact B follows immediately: a fund-raising form letter filled with pious platitudes from Senator John Warner of Virginia. This seems a non sequitur, and it is. But after 40 lines of reprinted letter Bob skillfully ties it into Bad Fact A anyway: "Sen. Warner--if he believes the great battle of our time is between Republicans and Democrats...ought to stop to listen to the car-alarm symphony, and realize that our troubles go much deeper than anything that can be solved at a voting booth."
Wow. Bob urging us to the ramparts, perhaps after an evening spent listening to the Les Miz sound track. Smash the ineffectual, car-alarm-jangled system! Viva la revolucion, Che Greene!
Bad Fact C, which Bob lifts shamelessly from a Tribune story in the Home section: "secure closets" now supposedly being built into luxury homes, little safe areas for terrified residents to "retreat at the first sign of home invasion." Bob must already have one. Can't you just see him, jolted awake by a car alarm, grabbing for Buster Sock Monkey as he leaps into his secure closet and slams the bolt, sweating, heart palpitating?
Finally, the poetic reprise of Bad Fact A: "We try our best to sleep through the night, to the strains of the car-alarm symphony, our new national anthem." Curtain. Finis.
The perverse beauty of Bob's ABCA model is that the specific facts he uses to support his case are irrelevant. If instead of car alarms, a fund-raising letter, and security closets Bob had instead seized on--oh, I don't know--bar codes, Hamlet's "too too solid flesh" soliloquy, and Windows 95, the column would still be the same. A condensed version:
"Bar codes, those stark black lines once limited to cans, now appear on magazines, medicines, even on letters to Santa written by handicapped children and sent through the U.S. mail. This jumble of fat and thin scratches lacks the warmth of neighborly chat over the backyard fence, never mind the eloquence of Shakespeare. Still, if Hamlet had wanted to see an unweeded garden gone to seed, he need look no further today than our ever-more-crime-ridden and anonymous suburbs, where neighbors no longer chat, but hide terrified behind thrice-bolted doors, retreating from the real world into computer-generated realities, such as those offered by Windows 95. Here is our new backyard fence, not of white wooden pickets, but the rude black bars of the bar code--prison bars, trapping us all in our own computerized cells."
A puzzle: If we read Bob here, what do they read in hell?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jeff Heller.