When I first heard that the MacArthur Foundation was trying to find a couple of dozen citizens to support for five years, in the hope that one of them might produce a work of genius, I naturally started scheming for a way to climb aboard. I don't mean that it was the only iron I had in the fire. I had submitted an entry to the Reader's Digest Sweepstakes, which made me eligible for a first prize of $100,000, with no obligation to subscribe. I had in my possession what purported to be transcripts of taps made on the telephone calls Prince Charles put in to Lady Diana while he was visiting in Washington, and I figured I might be able to sell them to some West German sheet like Der Stern for a small fortune if the boches didn't get suspicious about how often Prince Charles seemed to use the word "twit" in describing American officials ("You wouldn't believe this writ from California they have as deputy secretary of state, Di. He keeps referring to Mum as Queen Juliana"). Still, I thought the MacArthur Foundation was my best shot. I had read in Chicago magazine that the foundation was particularly eager to pour money on people "with intellects not readily defined" -- which I interpreted as a cleaned-up version of precisely what my high school algebra teacher was always saying about me.
At first, I thought I would simply accompany my application for unconditional largess with letters of support from people who could testify to just how truly difficult to define my intellect has always been -- something like "I find him absolutely unfathomable" or "I can't imagine what he thinks he's up to" or "'cockamamie' is the word that leaps to mind." I figured that the MacArthur people, who talked a lot about risking their money on the possibility of genius, would then see me as just the sort of indecipherable wacko they apparently considered most likely to make "discoveries or other significant contributions to society." Reading the Chicago piece more closely, though, I discovered that applications for the Prize Fellows Program were not being accepted. Names were being submitted by a secret committee of a hundred scouts who would never reveal their identity even to the Prize Fellows they put on Easy Street. The most innocent-looking citizen could be, in reality, an undercover genius-hunter -- someone to whom I would have to give evidence of being the sort of breakthrough guy who, freed from the wretched bill collectors for five years, might just come up with a rhyme for Natchitoches or discover a cure for plastic.
"I'm reminded of a little experiment I've been carrying on in Nova Scotia on production levels in totally neglected apple trees," I said to a taxi driver the next day on the way uptown, meanwhile sliding over to get a better angle for checking whether his beard looked real or pasted on.
"Eighth Avenue reeminds you?" he said. He started shaking his head back and forth. "Eighth Avenue reminds him of apple tree," he repeated.
Was he feeling me out? "The implications for the question of energy conservation alone are enormous," I said. "And the whole area of human sloth remains unexplored, I mean from a boffo breakthrough point of view."
"Is that the right-hand side of Forty-third and Eighth you want or the left?" he said.
Maybe he really was a taxi driver, I decided the next day. I had shifted my suspicion to a plumber who arrived to fix a clogged drain.
"You're not the fellow they usually send, are you?" I asked, casually inspecting his clothing for signs that he might really be an assistant professor of comparative literature who, failing to get tenure at Northwestern, agreed to go undercover for MacArthur.
"He's out today," the plumber said.
"The poetry I've done -- the indication of the sort of poetry I might be capable of doing -- hasn't been widely read by the lay public," I said. "The epic poem I wrote during the Time-Life International Industrial Development Conference in 1957 -- 'Ode to Combined Assets of Thirty Billion and Other Holdings' -- was, in a manner of speaking, privately published. As to the sonnet I turned out during the same period in honor of my landlady, a certain Mrs. Krupevitch, a close textual analysis would indicate --"
"I think I forgot some tools," the alleged plumber said, edging toward the door.
"The area of social science is what I think of as my crossover field," I said. "It's in a sort of idea-generating dynamic combination with agronomy and the tango. My current project -- uncompleted only for lack of funding, I might say -- is an appearance/personality survey among white males age 30 to 47 on the correlation between designer jeans and wonks. So far --"
"Gotta get back to the shop," the plumber said. "Forgot my whatchacallit." He flung open the door and vanished.
Was I disappointed when the list of Prize Fellows came out and my name wasn't on it? Who wouldn't have been? I had madel certain sacrifices; the drain was still clogged. Also, I had just learned that the Reader's Digest had awarded its prizes in February without my knowledge. The Germans had indeed proved suspicious of the Prince Charles transcripts' authenticity. ("Aside from what appears to be an attempt to make the speaker sound English by an overuse of the word 'twit,' we find it impossible to believe that an American deputy secretary of state could have really revealed himself to be under the impression that the House of Orange is a California juice-bar franchise.") Still, I did not join the chorus criticizing the MacArthur Foundation for having selected mainly established types who had for year been considered worthy of a flier by such long-shot players as the Ford Foundation and the tenure committee of Harvard. It might have looked like sour grapes. Also, I would hate to see MacArthur react by going too far in the direction of the non-credentialed: one of the Prize Fellows next year might be a cab driver with creative ideas for an apple-tree project.