It's been more than 20 years since the Pet Rock proved that a stupid idea could make you rich. Over the years my brother-in-law Lewie has had plenty of ideas. He invented the all-corners pizza (don't ask), the mistletoe hat, and the plastic Denver boot, to name only a few, but none of these set the world beating a path to his door.
At least he has a door now. Lewie moved out of his car a couple years ago and got an apartment by trading maintenance work for low rent. He stopped driving after losing his license--the license wasn't taken away, he just lost it. He still doesn't have a phone, but he likes it that way.
Lewie asks many favors. Sometimes he needs a ride to a job, sometimes he comes over and makes phone calls for a couple hours. Last December, Lewie had an idea for a Christmas present for two of his lady friends (not girlfriends), and would his, could his sister please do him this one favor? Could she make them?
What are they? she asked.
"You know Beanie Babies?"
Our kids had something like 20 of them. Yes, she knew Beanie Babies.
"I want to make Weenie Babies."
Lewie asked Grace to get some fabric and make a pattern for two sets of beanbags done up to look like male genitalia. He promised to supply the beans.
Grace ended up buying a five-pound bag of organic soybeans at Whole Foods as well as some beige velour at Amvets. She created a pattern and taught Lewie how to use the sewing machine. They cut and stuffed the babies, about a pound of beans in each. They glued on eyes and tufts of hair, and by Christmas Eve the Weenies were finished.
Lewie liked his creations, and Grace was surprised that she did too. They were cute. Kinda cuddly. They looked a little like elephants.
"A nonthreatening penis," Lewie mused. "This has got to be a first."
"It can't get hard," Grace pointed out.
"That's not a first," Lewie answered.
The ladies loved their Weenies and showed them to their friends. "Where'd you get those?" their friends asked. "From a friend," they demurred. When one told Lewie that her friends wanted Weenies and were willing to pay, he realized that after years of fruitless wondering he might actually have come up with his own Pet Rock. Only it was a Pet Cock.
He called Grace again. Could she help him make a couple more? "Nobody's ever exploited the penis in a warm and cuddly way before," he gushed. "This could really get big."
He had another idea: the Weenies ought to have identities. Who was that longhaired poet guy, Longfellow? "We could call him Schlongfellow," Lewie suggested.
"Yeah?" Grace asked, warily.
"What's the rest of his name?"
She went to the encyclopedia and read, "Henry Wadsworth Longfellow."
"Wads-worth?" Lewie hooted. "See, Grace? It was meant to be."
Alone on a January night, Lewie took up pencil and paper and wrote down a few names. Rod Spewart. Dick Jagger. Sonny Boner. Alice Drooper. It was easy: Bob It. Shaft. Orville Redencocker. They kept coming: Johnnie Cockring.
F. Me Daily. Christopher Harden. He thought about Star Wars: Luke Guywacker and Dark Invader. Hand Solo's buddy Chewcocka. How about Star Trek? Captain Jerk. And his first mate, Mr. Cock! Too easy. He quickly discovered the occupational hazard of this enterprise: he couldn't stop. He could go on until they trussed him up in a straitjacket and took him away to a mental hospital.
Lewie kept babbling about Weenies all through the winter, mostly to us and his buddies at the bar. He wanted to get up 50 of them in time for Valentine's Day. He could envision the ads already: This Valentine's Day, Give Her What She Really Wants. He talked to the owner of the Big Nasty, the bar on Lincoln where Lewie was doing some painting and plastering. The owner said he could sell them there. But only ten were finished by the first week of February, and he'd already promised to give those away.
Lewie kept sewing though. He couldn't help himself. When he couldn't sew anymore, he came up with new Weenies--Slick Willie, with the Presidential Squeal of Approval and notches on the side; Al Ka-bone; Da'nice Rod-man. He wrote poems for them. The Al Ka-bone poem read:
Never had safe sex or no inhibitions,
Kept the Windy City wet all through Prohibition.
Had all the mobsters watchin' their backs,
Got thrown into jail for not payin' tax.
Kept drunkards and winos in a state of bliss,
Then died in Miami of syphilis.
He gave one to Channel Five sportscaster Jon Kelley, called Jon Swelley. He toyed briefly with the idea of creating a memorial to the Heaven's Gate suicides--the Lost Weenies--but decided against it. That would be in really bad taste.
He kept taking time away from work, and one night it happened that the bag of soybeans was the only food in the house. He heated up a half pound in the microwave. He'd eaten worse.
The people at the bar told Lewie he was wasting his time, but that's the way it is--the bar majority always roots for failure. There wasn't any standardization in his homemade Weenies, they said--each one was a slightly different size and shape. "So what?" Lewie answered. "They're all different and they're all the same." But he knew he couldn't keep this up. Grace had been helping him sew when she had time, but she could only do so much. He needed partners.
One of the regulars who believed in Lewie's idea gave him the phone number of some lawyers who were looking to expand their practice into something beyond the law. Lewie called right from the bar, and they set up a meeting. Afterward he came over to our house to pick up the rest of the Weenies.
It would be a relief to see them go. There was a small pile in the bedroom, a group in the living room, and a couple were mixed in with the Beanie Babies in the dining room. A piece of the Bob It, made detachable through the miracle of Velcro, was stuck on the head of Misty the Seal. The kids were dangerously amused by all of this. "You'd better make some money," I told Lewie, "'cause you're gonna pay for the therapy."
Grace warned him not to sign any contracts right away, and he agreed that was a good idea. But he didn't believe the lawyers were going to offer him anything. No one ever had before.
The lawyers work out of an office on Michigan Avenue across the street from the Art Institute. Lewie carried a bag full of Weenies and a display rack past the art students hanging outside. After he was buzzed into the office he confronted the lawyers. "Who's the real artist?" he wanted to know. Much to Lewie's amazement, they decided it was him.
He called Grace late that afternoon, breathless and disoriented. The lawyers were taking 50 percent, which they'd told him was a good deal. "Well of course they're gonna tell you that," Grace said. "Do you think they're going to say they're offering you a bad deal?"
"These guys are great, Grace. They got a sign on their office that says 'Holistic Criminal Law.' They treat the whole criminal!" They'd told him that venture capitalists would have taken 90 percent, which was true.
"And they're gonna do everything," he continued. "They're gonna put up the money, take care of the patents, find sweatshops for mass production. They just want me to feed 'em the ideas. They said we'd have to come up with ideas quickly, respond to current events, and I said, well, how about Fuzzy Sweller? They went nuts. They even liked my other ideas! They incorporated me!"
He was excited, yet a kind of calm had come over him. For the first time in his life he was being taken seriously. "Yeah, I'm Pink Torpedo Productions now, working out of an office on Michigan Avenue, baby! Maybe it's not as good as being on Wacker, but I'm not complaining."
A letdown was inevitable. The lawyers loved the idea, but one was concerned that celebrity parodies might lead to lawsuits. Lewie wrapped himself in the First Amendment. "It's satire. Look at Mad magazine--they make fun of public figures all the time."
But this was different, counsel argued. This was a three-dimensional object.
Lewie frowned. "There's famous people makin' dicks of themselves every day, and they ought to be exposed."
But the lawyer was adamant. "I don't want to go up against Johnnie Cochran. And if I was Johnnie Cochran and I saw this," he picked up a king-size Weenie with a key ring around its shaft, "I'd be suing."
Lewie couldn't believe it. He was a fan, damn it. He'd even called Court TV's Cochran and Grace show from my house about a month before, and left this message: "Johnnie, I love you man. You're outrageous, you're preposterous. Here, let me put this hat on. Who am I now? I love you man. You're outrageous, you're preposterous, you're the best. Could you send me an autographed picture?" He gave his address. When he called back a week later he noticed that the Cochran and Grace answering tape requested several more details from the caller and demanded all messages be kept under a minute. Lewie left the same message.
"Don't do that anymore," the lawyer warned him. Lewie promised he wouldn't.
Obviously there was more to erecting a small business than he'd thought. "The only thing that worries me is how long do I have to keep thinking about these things? I can't think about dicks forever." There were several other things to think about, the lawyer told him. They couldn't use soybeans. Beans are food, and food brings in the USDA. They'd have to find a nonflammable material to make the Weenies. The plastic eyes might be a problem. If they fell off, they could be eaten and choked on. "Hey," Lewie maintained, "they just come out the other end." The lawyer answered that this was just the tip of the iceberg, or the Weenie--a name he was sure they wouldn't be able to use.
Lewie sat in the fancy Michigan Avenue office, reflecting. His hands hurt from sewing, his glasses were speckled with paint, and his heart felt momentarily heavy. Yet the moment passed and he was proud. Where else but in America could he spend most of his life dicking around and wind up getting paid for it? If Weenies were going to cause him misery, at least the misery would be his own. He peered across the table at the lawyer, his partner in his corporation, and asked, "Did you ever spend your life looking for something and suddenly realize it was in the palm of your hand?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Randy Tunnell.