What was Christopher Cerf, chronicler of the '80s, doing yesterday morning in downtown Washington, holding a box of Bartender Mai-Tai mix and pouring a gallon of Cossack 100-proof vodka into his car's gas tank?
Within five minutes a knot of 25 people had gathered, staring at this guy in a pin-striped Brooks Brothers suit acting like a merry prankster.
"We've tested a lot of mixtures," Cerf announced, "pina colada, whiskey sour, and there's no doubt that vodka and Mai-Tai mix provide this car with optimum performance."
Somebody on the street started getting uppity.
"You wasting all that good vodka on this martini-mobile?" he asked.
"Not to worry," said Cerf, putting himself back in the driver's seat, "$9.49 a gallon doesn't seem that bad."
He was back on the road, winding around Benjamin Banneker Circle, flooring the gas pedal and getting very little acceleration.
"They're leaving me dead in my tracks," he said, pounding on the steering wheel of his experimental, energy-saving government car. "I hate it."
You have to understand that Chris Cerf is a guy who is 10 years ahead of his time. He's living in 1989 -- largely because he just helped edit a satire on the future, "The '80s: A Look Back at the Tumultuous Decade." Call it future schlock, or the right book for the wrong time. It documents the great food shortage caused by the earth's shaking during the Year of the Simultaneous Orgasm; the great oil glut and its concomitant intentional oil spills that wiped out the over-bred whales; the Arab takeover of film studios and movies like "Heaven Kuwait"; net-worth license plates in California; the following of the magazine Half-Life and its celebration of the nuclear life style; the Disney acquisition of England and its resulting theme park, the United Magic Kingdom.
So it seemed only in keeping with appropriate technology yesterday morning for Christopher Cerf to visit the Department of Energy, which was displaying its new fleet of energy-efficient future cars at L'Enfant Plaza. Most of them have standard engines modified to run on various mixtures of alcohol, but, even the adventurous fellow, Cerf chose the radical AMC P-40 Spirit, a cute little $50,000 item underpowered by a 40-horse Stirling engine that runs on positively anything that will burn.
Cerf suggested a trip to a hooch shop, for a fill-up of Ripple.
"No way," said Art Dybowski, one of the project engineers. "We've run this guy on 150 Bacardi, but no sugar."
(Cerf did not actually put the sugar-laden Mai-Tai mix in the tank, but merely held it as a prop. Some guys will do anything for a laugh.)
Now all this liquor business suggested some wonderful future ads. "White Rum introduced me to my AMC Spirit." "Why Johnny Walker when you can drive?" "Smirnoff leave you breathless -- and tanked up." And considering that DOE is approppriating $96 million this year for transportation programs, there's the inevitable, "While you're up, get me a grant."
"Imagine," said Cerf, "you're at a party, and you walk out and say, 'Give me a fifth for the road."
Christopher Cerf, 38-year-old son of the late Random House chief Bennett Cerf, has made a career out of being funny. As a senior at Harvard he collaborated on a spoof of Ian Fleming called "Alligator." He wrote for the Harvard Lampoon and then the National Lampoon, created a marketing arm for Children's Television Workshop and became All-Star Team Editor of an obscure magazine called "The Real World," which listed "category" baseball teams like the "car team" with Whitey Ford and Manny Mota. In 1975 he co-complied "The National Lampoon Bicentennial Calendar" that noted great events in American history, like the creation of the world's largest cheese, a 34,591-pound Wisconsin cheddar, on Jan. 20, 1964.
Last year Cerf, who probably has the world's heftiest record for collaborations, co-created "Not The New York Times," a $1 spoof of the struck New York Times that led with a timely piece, written by Watergate scribe Carl Bernstein, on the 19-minute reign of Pope John Paul John Paul I. It sold a staggering 400,000 copies.
"I think," said Cerf, "that people thought it really was The Times."
So one day, shortly after that monumental success, Cerf was having a drink with a friend, Peter Elbling. "The right drink at the right time," he recalled yesterday.
"Elbling said, 'I think a lot of people will be writing books about the '70s, and if we hurry we can do one on the '80s.' I think we succeeded."
Cerf, Elbling and Not-The-Times co-conspirators Tony Hendra and Michael Gross chose 15 categories like sports, religion and law, and began to break them down into specific topics, with the aid of Cerf's Apple II home computer. At one point Cerf had 100 pages of numbered concepts, which were farmed out to writers including Abbie Hoffman, Stan Lee, George Plimpton and Jack Egan. Some came true too soon, like a piece on satellite debris protective gear. Some were ingenious in concept alone, like Perrier syrup. "They tried freeze-dried," said Cerf, "but it was a complete failure."
The result delves into the plight of the yacht people; the abduction of the Beatles; Chinese dinner theaters; the Volkswagen Continental and the success of John-John Kennedy in hosting "The Tonight Show," where he's introduced by Ed McMahon: "HEEEEERE's Johnny Johnny." It's a world of baseball players who refuse to score vital runs until their contracts are renegotiated between home and third; metered rickshaws; the triple World Trade Center with its "Windows on the Third World Restaurant," and -- about all -- apathy. Voters refuse to go the polls and elect a president, so the one remaining network holds it own election for Anchorperson of the United States.
He sums the book up:
"That's the way it should be, 1980-1989."