Gabe Durham captures everything great, terrible, and ludicrously random about America.
ON SEPTEMBER 22, 2011, Representative Ted Poe (R-Texas) took a muffin to the House floor and rhetorically asked his colleagues, “Do you know the muffin man, the muffin man, the muffin man?,” assured they would recognize the old English folk song he was quoting. “Yes, I know the muffin man,” Poe continued, “but he doesn’t live on Drury Lane. He lives at the Department of Justice. And is growing rich on selling $16 muffins to the Department of Justice. On Justice Lane.”
Two days ago, the D.O.J. Inspector General reported that at a 2007 legal training conference, a Capital Hilton Hotel had charged the D.O.J. $4,200 for 250 muffins, which breaks down to $16.80 per muffin, a price that “appeared extravagant and potentially wasteful” to the report’s author. President Obama ordered a review of conference spending, Vice President Biden called the reports “troubling,” and the news media began to refer to the story as “Muffingate.”
“Now Madam Speaker,” Poe said, holding up his muffin. “How come these critters cost $16 apiece? … Where do you even find a muffin that costs $16? I’ve never seen one.” Poe put down the muffin. “So why is the Justice Department, with all those fancy lawyers, letting the muffin man get away with this price gouge? Because the muffin—er—because the government doesn’t care.”
Ted Poe was the first Republican to represent Texas’s 2nd district, which was previously known as the 9th district before the Texas Legislature oversaw the 2003 Texas State Redistricting with the aid of Governor (and future presidential candidate) Rick Perry, as well as Congressman Tom DeLay, who would later serve as House Majority Leader, compete in “Dancing with the Stars,” and get himself convicted of money laundering. Before being elected to Congress, Poe made a name for himself as the kind of judge who gets a kick out of creative sentencing: He sent a man convicted of manslaughter to boot camp and made the man carry around a photo of his victims. He sent a teen who stole a video game to ring bells for the Salvation Army. Now, as a congressman, Ted Poe was known for tagging his House floor speeches with the line, “And that’s just the way it is.”
Hilton denied overcharging for the muffins, explaining that the price included coffee, tea, juice, fruit, tax, and tip.
Hilton Worldwide is now owned by the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm founded in 1985 by a pair of Lehman Brothers alums. It also owns Biomet, Travelport, United Biscuits, Sea World Parks and Entertainment, and Pinnacle Foods. Pinnacle Foods owns such brands as Duncan Hines, Van de Kamp’s, Log Cabin, and Mrs. Butterworth’s. Mrs. Butterworth’s is a brand of syrups and pancake mixes whose mascot is a matronly bottle of syrup who shows children that her syrup has a slower pour than the other leading brands. Her likeness was sold by Unilever to Aurora Foods in 1997, was acquired by Pinnacle in 2003, and then by Blackstone in 2007, the same year Blackstone acquired Hilton, the same year that the Department of Justice held a legal training conference at the Capital Hilton Hotel at which Hilton did or did not serve $16 muffins.
Hilton Hotels was founded by Conrad Hilton, a Catholic businessman who in 1942 married the actress Zsa Zsa Gabor and divorced her four years later. Upon his death, Hilton tried to leave most of his money to a charitable foundation in his name, but his son, Barron, contested the will and won 3.5 million of his father’s 13.5 million shares in the company. Penitent, maybe, Barron Hilton in 2007 announced he would leave about 97% of his $2.3 billion estate to the same charitable foundation he’d partially kept his dead father from endowing. This dramatically shrank the inheritance to be given to Barron Hilton’s living relatives, including the socialite and businesswoman Paris Hilton, of whose behavior Barron Hilton was reportedly embarrassed.
Recently, Paris Hilton was in Istanbul, first at a press conference (“Love all the media people in #Turkey, very nice and respectful,” she tweeted) and then at the nearby Istinye Park Mall, where she promoted her new Paris Hilton Footwear Line Collection, while Beyonce meanwhile pitched her new fragrance on ET Canada, Britney Spears performed in St. Petersburg, and Emily Deschanel recovered from having yesterday given birth. Drudge Report, FOX Nation, and Jim Hoft meanwhile scolded Michelle Obama for in these lean times wearing borrowed $42,000 Katie Decker diamond bangles at a fundraiser (the media outlets falsely implying she’d purchased them), and “Army Wives” star Kim Delaney gave a drunken speech at a military ceremony in Philadelphia, making it sound as if she had in real life “seen soldiers come home with painful life-altering injuries borne of their time and service,” “attended numerous military funerals, including that of my best friend’s son,” before sorta-clarifying that these were just things her character had done: “I do that as a job,” she said. “It’s all make believe.”
And then Taylor Lautner appeared on Regis & Kelly promoting his new movie, “Abduction,” a nothing-is-what-it-seems, who-am-I-really? action thriller that eventually earned a score of 4% on Rotten Tomatoes for being “soulless” and “incompetent.”
In a lightning round of Get to Know You questions, Regis asked Lautner, “Do you like boxers or briefs?” Lautner replied that he liked to switch it up.
Next question: “Mild or spicy?” Lautner apologetically chose mild, and Regis said, in smiley exasperation, “Mild? You’re a vampire!”
Regis then asked Lautner, “Fish or steak?” and when Lautner chose steak, Regis pumped his fist in solidarity, giving Lautner to understand he’d made the correct choice. “Yeah, sure,” Regis said, “the good blood of a steak!”
That evening, a handsome, ageless 49-year-old Michael Jordan emerged from a black Bentley and presided over the opening of Michael Jordan’s Steak House in Chicago. “I think you guys are going to be very happy with the food,” he said.
A lengthy negotiation session between the NBA owners and the players union had just ended, having accomplished nothing. Profits were down and the owners’ proposed solution was to cut player salaries and impose a salary cap at $45 million per team.
Leading the faction of owners who wanted to squeeze the most possible money out of players (offering them 47% of revenue instead of 50%) was Michael Jordan, owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, who as a player during the 1998 labor crisis, told Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, “If you can’t make a profit, you should sell your team.” Now he was one of the suits, and according to sportswriter Jason Whitlock, a sellout.
But Jordan in his ball-playing days had been as much the capitalist as he was now—“Republicans buy shoes, too,” he famously said when asked why he refused to endorse a black Democratic candidate, and today Republicans and Democrats continued to make Jordan rich: “The Business of Michael Jordan is Booming,” Forbes reported, citing his continued endorsement deals with Nike, Hanes, Gatorade, and 2K Sports, a video game company that put him on the cover of the game NBA 2K11 not because he’d played any basketball in 2011 but because people just liked him that much—93% of Americans, according to one survey. David Shields tells the story of Jordan and Charles Barkley walking down the street. Barkley gives some money to a homeless guy, and Jordan grabs Barkley and says, “Quit doing that. If they’re able to ask you for some spare change, they can say, ‘Welcome to McDonald’s, can I help you please?’”
With no end to negotiations in sight, the league prepared to cancel the first three preseason games. “The calendar is not our friend,” said NBA commissioner David Stearn. And he was right: The lockout continued for two and a half months, reducing the season from 82 games to 66, and costing the players $350 million. Not that all Americans could be bothered to pay close attention. More fun than listening to athletes argue about money was watching them play sports, and sometimes more fun than watching them play sports was arguing about their character.
Matt Besser, co-founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade, creator of the short-lived fake debate show “Crossballs,” and ex-boyfriend of actress Amy Poehler, celebrated his 44thbirthday and unrelatedly appeared on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” representing the hoards of haters of Tim Tebow, the outspoken Christian backup (but soon to be starting) quarterback for the Denver Broncos.
During the 2011 Super Bowl, Tebow appeared with his mom in a pro-choice commercial for the ultraconservative Christian organization Focus on the Family, which bothered Besser enormously. “If I’m a gay fan of the Broncos,” Besser said, “if I’m a woman who is a pro-choice fan of the Broncos, how do I feel about Tim Tebow being so vocal against everything I believe?”
The Nation’s Dave Zirin, on the other hand, felt that athletes could and should take up whatever causes they believed in, but felt that Tebow was offered a platform for his politics “precisely because of the kind of politics that he chooses to espouse.” According to Zirin, the media’s ethos was “not that sports and politics don’t mix, it’s that sports and a certain kind of politics don’t mix.” Time and again, conservative Christian athletes’ messages were heard and applauded. But when athletes spoke out for progressive causes like Etan Thomas (an anti-war activist), Scott Fujita (a supporter of gay rights and abortion rights), and Rashard Mendenhall (who after the death of Osama bin Laden tweeted, “For those of you who said you want to see Bin Laden burn … I ask how would God feel about your heart?”), they were met with media silence or anger, which for Mendenhall meant the loss of his endorsement deal with Champion.
The Big 12 Conference dumped its commissioner, Dan Beebe, in part because the Big 12 had shrunk to the Biggish 10 (losing University of Nebraska and Colorado University) and was about to shrink to the Medium 8 (losing Texas A&M and University of Missouri), with no official plans to change its name. Before he was commissioner, Beebe was most famous for his role in exposing Southern Methodist University’s NCAA violations, including the maintenance of an under-the-table slush fund to pay out signing bonuses and cushy monthly stipends to players. SMU ultimately faced the rarely seen “death penalty,” the harshest punishment in all of college football: the team was banned from competing for one year.
Billy Gardell from the sitcom “Mike and Molly” told Craig Ferguson, “I lost 25 pounds. It wasn’t my choice. We’re a hit so they’re trying to keep me alive.” Jonah Hill told Conan O’Brien about how certain gay men were upset that Hill was no longer a bear since he’d lot of weight, and Kirstie Alley was a top 20 Google search for having gone from 230 pounds to 130 pounds in the last two years from eating organic, working out, and from Dancing with the Stars. Today she proclaimed that “for the first time in my life, I know exactly what I want in a man,” and what she wanted was “someone who has my back, who is courageous and brave.”
The twig-thin 44-year-old Guinness (beer) heiress Daphne Guinness was a #1 Google search, lighting up the blogosphere over a New Yorker profile that revealed a wealth of titillation ripe for web consumption. In one scene, Guinness discusses her Nazi sympathizer grandmother, with whom she was close, and her grandmother’s sister, Unity, who as a member of Hitler’s inner circle shot herself when Britain declared war on Germany. “Why didn’t Unity shoot Hitler instead of herself?” Guinness says. “Then we’d be descended from heroes instead of from villains.”
In another scene, she passes on a plate of pasta her assistant brings her, saying, “If I eat, I can’t work. I’ll eat when I’m dead,” a remark that prompted ABC News to run the headline,
“Daphne Guinness Vows “I’ll Eat When I’m Dead”
which, unless Guinness’s hand was on a Bible, was a gross misuse of the verb “vow,” which means, according to the Encarta World English Dictionary, “to promise something solemnly and seriously.” But by the time the reader confirms the verb’s inaccuracy, he has already clicked through and the article has racked up another view.
The next day, an estimated 153,425 people died, an average of 1.8 deaths per second, an enormous tragedy and a perfectly normal day.
Among them was R&B singer/actress Vesta Williams, 53, who played a recurring role as Jackie Harry’s best friend in “Sister, Sister,” a show starring a pair of identical twins who later attended the same college I did. Vesta sang jingles for McDonalds, Diet Coke, and Baskin Robbins, and her weight fluctuated a lot during her lifetime. After losing it all through an extreme weight loss program, she told Ebony Magazine, “I had to beat ‘em out of here with sticks when I was heavy. But it’s a different level of attention I get now. I find that it’s more of a staring kind of thing. And sometimes, I don’t think guys find me as approachable.”
During Vesta’s final performance at the Autumn Jazz Explosion in Portsmouth, VA, she performed her 1989 signature hit, “Congratulations,” a ballad about hearing through a friend that her former lover is getting married. The recorded version ends with a promise to the lover,
As long as I can breathe
you’ll always be the one for me
but that night she continued the song with a new verse, an epilogue about having moved on after all, “I got a new friend anyway. / He don’t lie. / He’s always by my side. / He makes me want to testify. / Thank you Jesus,” and a drug overdose killed her five days later.
The roster of the newly dead included 97-year-old Nelda Sturm and 109-year-old Cecilia Buehler, and the wonderfully named Virgie Gregg, Opal Arlene Adams, Edna Burger Jones, Ailene Blunk, Charles William Saucier Sr., and Florence M. “Flossy” Middleton. It included University of Akron student Dale Settle Jr., shot on his walk to a bible study, and HBO technician Jeffery Taylor, shot in Queens on his walk to work. We lost Bernadyne Jean Skwarlo, who loved watching golf, Cynthia Lee D’Apice, who loved the lotto, Jake Kipfinger, who allegedly loved and was loved by everyone, and Hugh Lee Edge, who once picked up a young woman for a blind date and told her when she opened the door that they would wind up married, and somehow it worked out for him.
The roster also included Jerry Schad, 61, author of 16 books about exploring the outdoors, who once rode his bike from Los Angeles to San Jose in under 22 hours, now survived by his second wife, Peg, whom he married four days after he found out his kidney cancer was terminal. In the last of his 861 “Roam-O-Rama” columns in the San Diego Reader, Schad bid his readers to (1) “Just get out there!” and explore the trails of Southern California, and (2) “be mindful of the time of the year and the time of day” when planning a hike, avoiding the inland deserts when its hot.
Abby of Dear Abby presented some readers’ write-ins about graveyard etiquette. Was it okay for people to walk dogs in a graveyard? For kids to play there while nearby people mourned?
“I find it disgusting and disturbing that these folks are using our sacred place for their personal pleasures,” said Jean of Massachusetts, making it sound as if her mourning was frequently disturbed by people having public sex atop nearby graves.
“Dear Abby,” said Jan of Sartell, MN. “Several years ago in a nearby church cemetery, a young couple and their 4-year-old were putting flowers on a relative’s grave. The child got a bit antsy and climbed on a headstone. The stone was loose and tipped over onto the child and killed him. No one should let children play in a cemetery.”
“Dear Abby,” said Alanson of New Jersey. “I want children to play on my grave.”
Meanwhile, University of Iowa student Thomas Plotkin was hiking with a 60-pound backpack beside the Gori River along the 37-mile Johar Trail in India. His ankle had been bugging him. While leading the group, Plotkin took a bad step, his ankle buckled beneath him, and he fell down a steep rock face some 300 feet, hit a rock ledge, and presumably fell into the Gori. It’s likely he was dead before his body slipped into the river.
Some of Plotkin’s tweets from the previous summer include:
“Pump at gas station was ridiculously slow and I had to go inside to pay#firstworldproblems”
“Only the Raiders would split the fb out and throw a 9 route to him on the first play of the game”
and “Phone fell 2 1/2 stories off a roof and survived. Who says iPhones aren’t durable?”
Plotkin was an international business major, he’d just completed a course in first aid, he was from Minnetonka, MN, he played lacrosse and ice hockey, sometimes his friends called him T-Plot, and helicopters failed to find his body. “It just sucks,” his friend Austin Smith said.
A writer for Plotkin’s school paper presented the death as evidence that when it came to American students traveling overseas, there was not enough “oversight” on the part of the U.S. government, giving voice to a collective wish for an all-seeing Hike Leader Obama, hand outstretched at the tough part where the rocks get slippery, minding us to watch our step, now, and to remember to hydrate. Appealing to the part of us that knows bad things don’t happen unless there is someone to blame.
The Department of Justice eventually came to agree with Hilton that they had misread the books—the $16 muffins had not cost $16 after all. “The abbreviated banquet checks did not reflect all of the food and services provided,” a Justice spokeswoman said in a statement.
This both put the matter to rest and did not put the matter to rest, as politicians and media figures either rejected the new information in favor of the old or simply stopped following the story’s developments.
Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) demanded that President Obama personally fire whoever was responsible for the excess. “The chart in the inspector general report says the muffins cost $16.80 per unit,” Grassley said. “Regardless of whether the $16.80 includes a tip, the bottom line is conference expenses are getting out of hand.”
“I don’t mind paying the 40% [tax rate],” talk show host Bill O’Reilly said while a guest on The Daily Show, “but first [the government is] going to have to stop wasting the money,” citing the $16 muffins as an example, and then later filmed a web video insisting, “The federal government overpays just about everything—the $16 muffin is symbolic of that,” and concluding, “The left-wing press lies to you.”
“I know the muffin man, the muffin man,” Ted Poe said in House floor speech, using a technique sometimes known as “bookending,” in which the speaker takes a word or phrase from the speech’s introduction and reiterates it in the conclusion. “The government should quit spending somebody else’s money to keep the muffin man rolling in the dough. And that’s just the way it is.”
Originally appeared at The Weeklings
About Gabe Durham
Gabe Durham’s debut novel, FUN CAMP, come out May 31 from Publishing Genius Press. Pieces of the book have appeared in over 25 journals and magazines, including The Good Men Project, Corium, and Necessary Fiction. Gabe lives in Los Angeles, tweets @Gabe Durham, and holds it down at Gather Round Children.