As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic woubit’s whigmaleerie. It is true. Things could be worse. He could have become something no one wanted. But a woubit’s whigmaleerie is embraced by all who know it as the charm of charms: a sort of dashboard Buddha, plastic Jesus, St. Christopher medal, and mezuzah all wrapped around one cute ball-o-wonder. Believe it or not, I’m certain I’m alive today because of him.
Well, maybe I’m exaggerating at little. No other public radio reporters carry such a fantastic talisman, a rabbit’s foot of a knickknack, held tightly in the custodial grip of a hairy caterpillar that feeds on nothing more than pocket lint.
I was in Scottsboro, Alabama once in the middle of January, gathering interviews for a documentary about the Scottsboro Boys from the 1930s. It was cold and rainy. I wore a knit cap that the owner of a local Army-Navy store on Main Street must have thought was a yarmulke.
“Are you a Jew?” he sneered. I had to think for a second why he would ask me that. But eyeballing the swastika flag and Ol’ Dixie hanging from the rafters, I just touched my hat and hesitatingly lied, slowly pocketed the woubit’s whigmaleerie on the table, and excused myself in one seamless motion. We’re always striving for sonic seamlessness on the radio, so why not make it part of life as well? No bumper-to-bumper jerking along with all those abrupt starts and stops on that rush hour parkway of modern life. I don’t know why I took that funny little worm at that uncertain moment. But I’m glad I did.
The little fellow has been with me ever since. Not one to pry, I’ve not discerned the object of his affection and I’m happy to leave it at that in light of his seemingly prophylactic powers. This was a long time ago in the analog universe, when editing required razor blades and grease pencils and mixing meant having at least three tape recorders and an engineer.
Since then the woubit and his prize have adapted to the 24/7 news cycle like the proverbial canary in the mineshaft. He alerts me to danger. But more important, now that I have shifted to the obituary beat, he always seems to know when someone famous or infamous is going to die.
Indeed, his presence has taken a toll on my social life, but his extrasensory perception about morbidity and mortality is too keen to part with. You see, I know the life status of all from his farts, the little puffs of stink I run through an app on my smart phone. The data from this noxious release informs me who’s about to drop their other shoe for good. They say sanitation workers become inured to the smell of sour milk and warm beer. So too, I have grown accustomed to this little stinker.
Imagine, for a moment, a stockbroker who knows ahead of time when Ajax Corporation is going to break fifty dollars a share. Now consider a public radio obituary writer who always has a tribute prepared within minutes of the celebrity’s passing to the other side. A foul-smelling crystal ball is better than no crystal ball at all. So Gregor Samsa, you had a miserable life as a Middle-European Willy Loman. Now you do all your traveling with me and have an unlimited supply of pocket lint. It sure beats those Southern nights. Just one favor: don’t tell me when my time is up. I want to be surprised in my sleep.