Paul Lukas is one of the great eccentric geniuses of American magazine writing. Unfortunately, he keeps getting fired from magazines. It's not that he does anything reprehensible. It's just that magazine editors--a group never noted for their sagacity--don't know what to make of him.
Lukas pays attention to things the rest of us overlook on the shelves of America's supermarkets and hardware stores, stuff like sauerkraut juice and canned pork brains and Body Glue--an adhesive used to hold your socks up and your bra straps in place--and Lawn Makeup, which is, he reports, "basically just a can of green spray paint designed for use on patches of brown, scorched lawn."
America is a country that churns out vast quantities of stuff. Lukas checks it all out, praising the good, lambasting the bad, reveling in the ridiculous. He's fearless. He eats the pork brains, drinks the 'kraut juice and lives to reveal what they're like, which turns out to be pretty awful. He's a cross between Ralph Nader and George Carlin--a quirky consumer reporter with a wicked sense of humor.
Lukas is the kind of guy who reads the tiny type on product labels, searching not just for ingredients but also for absurdity. For instance, he was delighted to report that the Lawn Makeup label boasted that the product is "virtually non-toxic." And he loved finding a can of pepper with the phrase "Sodium-Free!" on the label. "Salt-free pepper--imagine that!" he wrote. "It's certainly a creative sort of sales pitch, sort of like putting 'Lactose-Free!' on a bottle of Evian."
Lukas loves simple gadgets that work, like those tiny table-shaped plastic doodads that keep the top of the box from collapsing into the pizza and the Brannock Device, that strange-looking machine that shoe-store clerks use to measure your feet. He also loves browsing in foreign supermarkets. In Australia, he found cans of cat food in a flavor called Salmon, Prawn, Marrowbone and Cheese as well as cans of human food called Salisbury Whole Peeled Lamb Tongues. He also got a box of candy cigarettes there called Fags, which is, of course, a slang word for cigarettes. A couple of years later, the name was changed to Fads, causing Lukas to conclude that "political correctness is a trans-continental phenomenon."
Lukas's career has been as quirky as his obsession. He started writing this stuff in 1993 while working as a book editor, publishing it in his own tiny magazine, which he called Beer Frame--a bowling term referring to the frame in which the losing player buys the beer, which has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter of the magazine. In 1997, Lukas's greatest hits were collected in a book called "Inconspicuous Consumption."
Meanwhile, he was hired to do his thing in a column, first in a tiny weekly called the NY Press, then in New York magazine, then Fortune, then Spin. But he never lasted long. Typically, the editor who hired him would leave and the next guy in the job would look at Lukas's column and say some variation of What is this thing about pork brains? and Lukas would be back on the street.
Now he writes a quirky, funny travel column every month in Money magazine. (This month's is about chasing tornadoes around the Great Plains.) And he still publishes Beer Frame. It comes out only about once a year, but it's worth the wait. It's available at the larger newsstands or you can buy copies directly from the great man himself for $3 apiece. He lives at 160 St. John's Place, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11217. He also sells Beer Frame coasters, each one embossed with a lovely picture of his beloved Brannock Device--$2 for a set of six. It's a small price to pay for the encouragement of American eccentricity.
One of the best things about National Geographic Traveler's new special issue, "50 Places of a Lifetime: The World's Greatest Destinations," is that Washington, D.C., isn't in it.
Washington is a wonderful place, but it didn't make the cut. It couldn't compete with Paris or Hawaii or the Canadian Rockies or the Loire Valley or the Australian Outback or the coral reefs of Papua New Guinea or the other 44 places that were chosen.
This magazine is a beautiful thing to behold. The color photographs are so lush and gorgeous they make you want to hop on a plane immediately--but where would you go? The Serengeti? Vatican City? Mesa Verde? Is there a package tour available?
The writing is also good. Traveler's editors hired some very famous writers--Salman Rushdie, Gore Vidal, Peter Jennings, David Halberstam--and then limited them to 500 words, which is a bit like bringing in Mark McGwire to pinch hit and ordering him to bunt. But in many cases it worked, yielding prose as rich and condensed as poetry.
Here's Paul Theroux on Hawaii: "My bees buzz and make honey every day of the year; the wind in the ironwoods has the yearning note of a cello; and there is never rain without an accompanying rainbow."
And William Broyles on the coast of Vietnam: "In 1969 I toured the country around Route 1 with a group of American teenagers. We were inoculated, flak jacketed, armed to the teeth. We carried our own food and our own music. We knew less about the country we passed through than the astronauts above us knew about the moon. But still we marveled at how beautiful it was, about the sea shimmering in the heat, the paddies orderly as fields in France, the mountains hidden in mist."
And Richard Leakey on the Serengeti at night: "The animals are noisy, but it is a concert--the grunts of the gnus, the high-pitched bark of the zebras, the songs of the grasshoppers and cicadas, the roar of the lions, and the excited laughs of the feeding hyenas."
Sounds a lot like Washington, come to think of it.
Cover Line of the Month
McCall's: "Lies! Revenge! Junk Food! 500 Women confess their guilty secrets"