Washington has been guilty of many things in the 210 years of this fair republic. But now we stand convicted of a true baddie: joke piracy.
The Washington jokejacking scandal blew wide open last June. According to The New Republic of that month, Marvin Stone, the former editor of U.S. News and World Report, said the following during a speech to a Washington banquet:
"I've been in Washington a long time. It was a very different city when I got here. You used to find Velveeta cheese in the gourmet section of the supermarket."
The New Republic reported Stone's joke as if it were the first time it had ever been told. It also reported something that is probably even funnier than the joke itself. The TNR reporter said he saw "a lot of people" in the luncheon crowd take out notebooks and write down the Velveeta gag so they could later use it themselves.
But the Velveeta joke was not hatched by Marvin Stone, and it was not hatched in Washington. Herb Caen, who writes a column similar to this one in San Francisco, but who has done it far longer and does it far better, has been publishing Velveeta gags for years. They center on a scruffy San Fran suburb called Chico.
"It's up in the hills," explained Karen Hunt, a Caen assistant. "It's very rural. Herb has been making fun of Chico for years -- its backward ways compared to the sophistication of San Franciscans . . . .The Velveeta jokes range from anything to anything."
Sample, as published by Brother Caen right after the Marvin Stone flap last June:
A man is about to make a fortune in Chico. He has invented Velveeta on a rope for those who get hungry in the shower.
Second sample, from a Caen column of several years ago:
What do Italian restaurants in Chico offer with pasta? Shredded Velveeta.
And so on.
As Caen put it, in a recent column: "Let's keep Velveeta jokes where they belong. In this column and in Chico."
Fair enough, Mr. C. To my readers the breadth of a nation away, I would add only this:
When you consider the raw material on which Washington can draw -- lovemaking on the Capitol steps, John Riggins, James Watt -- why should we have to steal a joke from anybody, about Velveeta or anything else?
Here's a morsel of classic Washingtoniana that would be funny if it weren't so sad.
The federal government paid out big bucks to give hormone injections to Ling-Ling the panda so she'd stand a better chance of conceiving.
But the same federal government will not pay to give the same hormone shots to human females covered by its insurance plans.
Explanation, please, George McWhorter, deputy assistant director for insurance programs, Office of Personnel Management?
"I can't make a general statement about all policies. We have about 300 contracts. It may be that some do pay routinely for hormone injections . I would assume that most do not. The reasoning behind those that do not is that it is not a medical treatment for a condition of ills or injuries. Tests to discover infertility are generally covered by the plans. Infertility is not a medical condition," McWhorter said.
Pretty callous, wouldn't you say? Here are dozens of women who can't conceive, and Uncle Sam tells them that a panda's reproductive system is more important than theirs. Priorities, priorities, what about priorities?
The name of the cab driver and the old man have fallen through the cracks. Not so the name of Mary Miller. She manages the lobby gift shop at Washington Adventist Hospital, and she did a good deed recently that ought to be routine -- but isn't.
Mary was on duty one morning when the old man walked in and bought a gift for his wife, who was a patient. Mary rang up the purchase, but when the man reached for his money, he came up empty.
He burst into tears and kept on bursting for several minutes. Finally Mary calmed him down enough to learn that he had cashed a $200 check on his way to the hospital. Now he had none of it. Almost certainly, the man had dropped a roll of bills on the floor of the cab.
Mary called the dispatcher, who radioed the cab, whose driver found the money and returned it to the old man within 15 minutes.
Finale: a couple of hours later, a certain old man reappeared in the gift shop. He had a bunch of red roses for Mary Miller -- roses that could not have been more richly deserved.
Jim Cannon defines a yuppie as a person whose kids play Show and Telex.