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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?
For the most part, there is not much to enjoy in a five-hour school bus ride.
To begin with, the seats are the wrong size, and no matter how hard you try, you cannot get comfortable in them. This is made all the more remarkable in that the seats are the wrong size for everyone, from preschoolers on up: The seats are no more comfortable for a four-year-old than for a ten-year-old, a sixteen-year-old, a thirty-year-old or a fifty-year-old.
This is a feat of engineering not rivaled in Detroit since the invention of the exploding Ford Pinto engine.
For forensicians, who are of average or pretty-soon-going-to-be-average heft, there are three possible seat positions. Facing forward means that your knees are bumping against your chin in the Japanese burial position. If there is enough room for single occupancy, one can sit sideways with one's back against the window and one's feet hanging over the aisle, if one doesn't mind fourteen tons of jolt through the walls of non-shock-absorbed bump-and-grind that rips through the spine like a forgotten scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. . Or finally, there's the edge-of-the seat approach, where you play knee tag with your neighbor on the seat directly across from you while occasionally falling backwards into an uncontrolled heap when the bus goes over an especially ripe pothole.
Compounded with the lack of comfort is the sheer tedium of the extended bus trip. The inventor of the school bus as we know it today -- a convicted sadist whose name has been struck from the public record by court order -- never intended his device to be used for more than an hour at a time, at which point the distribution of pain among the passengers would have gone past the unimaginably delicious into the possibly fatal. His true expectation was that the life of every student in America would begin with a solid thirty minutes of agony, just enough to ruin the first two hours of school, and end with a similar thirty minutes of agony, just enough to disallow the finding of any comfortable position in the La-Z-Boy at home when settling in for two hours of "Saved By The Bell" reruns. The idea that people would be confined to a bus for hours at a time was beyond his most hopeful imagining, and still stretches the credulity of most otherwise sane serial torturers. But while it's bad enough that you can't find a place to satisfactorily park your butt for more than five minutes at a time, you have to pass literally hours of what can be debilitating boredom. The average forensician, on a five hour bus trip, reads, sleeps, eats, works on his or her cases or pieces, plays cards, sings Backstreet Boys songs despite an innate hatred of the Backstreet Boys, makes time with the most likely member of the opposite sex on the vehicle, does homework, gossips, plays Starcraft on a laptop, tells ghosts stories, gets yelled at by the driver for standing up, accidentally unlatches the emergency exit, looks out the window down at the knees of the passengers in the cars below, argues vociferously over opening or closing the windows, plays party games, tries to decipher the radio static that the driver has on for the entire trip, requests a pit stop, and walks up and down the aisle across the obstacle course of outstuck feet thirteen times -- all in the first hour. This leaves four hours for wondering why you took up forensics instead of recreational drugs.
But with five hour school bus rides -- as with everything in life -- there is always an exception.
"These croissants aren't very good," Tom Abelard says. "Are you sure they came from our cafeteria?"
Across the aisle from him, Bob Cratch is chewing his own croissant with the same look of disfavor. "These aren't very good, are they? The butter?"
"What else could it be?"
"They buy fresh butter every day."
"They didn't this morning."
Bob Cratch drops his croissant back into the brown paper bag whence it came. "I'll talk to the bakery chef on Monday. This is not acceptable." He takes a sip of his coffee. "At least they haven't let us down on the java."
Tom Abelard sips from his own cup. "Kona?"
"With a hint of Colombian for leveling."
"Not bad at all," Abelard says, sitting back in his seat. He holds the coffee out in front of him as he adjusts the seat back: not too low, not too high, feet up about a foot and a half -- the perfect setting for early morning.
The Quilty Prep bus is on the highway, doing about seventy-five miles an hour, compared to the average school bus speed of fifty before the whole thing shakes itself to death in a yellow mass of mismatched metal. The Quilty team does not travel on school buses. For their forensic trips -- and for that matter, for any of their extracurricular activities -- the students travel in rented coach buses. They are outrageously expensive, but for Quilty, that is not a problem. And the nice thing is, coach buses come with air conditioning, reclining seats with plenty of leg room, on-board lavatories, and sometimes, depending on the luck of the draw, double-decker arrangements with an upstairs complete with bar, game tables and panoramic excursion windows for sightseeing.
Today, however, since there are only eight students traveling on the vehicle designed for nearly ten times that large a group, they have not felt the necessity for the double-decker.
And, oh yes, the best thing of all about the coach buses: the video player.
"So what are we watching today, Tom?" Bob Cratch asks. It was Tom Abelard's responsibility to bring a reasonable assortment of videos along for the trip.
"You name it, I've got it. Dark City, The Maltese Falcon, all three Godfathers, Eyes Wide Shut--"
"That isn't out yet on video."
"It is if you know the right people."
"Isn't that X-rated?"
"You mean NC-17. Nothing's X-rated anymore if it comes from a real studio. But actually, no, it's an R."
"Don't forget, we have novices on this bus."
"They won't be novices after they see this."
"And we have Melvish on this bus."
Abelard puts his coffee into the built-in slot in his seat. "Melvish?"
"Melvish. You know what he'll be like if we show him Eyes Wide Shut?"
Abelard shudders. "I've got Wizard of Oz," he says.
"What possessed you to bring that?"
Bob Cratch bends down and looks behind him down the aisle in the direction of the novices. Melvish is talking a mile a minute.
"Some place where there isn't any trouble?" Abelard asks.
"Do you think there is such a place, Toto?" Bob Cratch replies.
"-Wizard of Oz it is, then," Abelard says, reaching down into the bag of videos. "What are we going to do about Eyes Wide Shut?"
"You and I will watch that alone. At our housing."
Abelard nods. "Later for Eyes Wide Shut."
Bob Cratch nods in return. "Later."
There may be buses, and there may be better buses, but no bus matches the comfort of a car.
But then again, there are cars, and there are cars. And no ordinary car matches the comfort of a limousine.
Tom Starbuck sits in the back of the vehicle, working as if he is peacefully ensconced within his office rather than motoring up to Boston on Vitelli family business. His laptop computer, perched on a small table in front of him, is plugged into an adapter that allows it to run off the car engine, which means that he will never run out of juice as long as the vehicle has a breath left in its fuel injectors. A coffeepot is plugged in to a connection on the side to his left, supplying him with enough fresh coffee to take him anywhere the morning wants him to go. His briefcase is open on the seat next to him to the right, and he has folders at the ready a mere arm's length away; one folder is already open on his lap, and he is staring at the top paper within it idly.
Jarndyce v. Vitelli. New York City civil court 432.00.046.
His boss, Proscenio (the "Whale") Vitelli, is being sued.
Starbuck sighs. The suit, brought on by a man named LoBrutto Jarndyce, whom the Vitellis have always considered a problem, alleges that the Vitellis have been in restraint of trade, forcing Jarndyce's string of five Italian delicatessens -- located two in Manhattan, two in Brooklyn and one in Yonkers -- to sell only the olive oils that the Vitellis import from Italy, rather than allowing Jarndyce to trade freely on the open market. In previous years Jarndyce has sued or threatened to sue, among other things, over cannoli, St. Joseph's cakes, and a certain brand of bottled Bolognese spaghetti sauce made with chicken livers that, to put it mildly, is to die for.
The Vitellis have often made it plain that as far as they are concerned, dying is exactly what Jarndyce should do. Old Don Dom used to complain, "The s.o.b. isn't even Italian."
"He's half Italian," Starbuck had pointed out.
"That's like being half a virgin," the old man had replied, finding the entire idea of being less than one hundred percent paisan one hundred percent repugnant.
In every other case, the Vitellis have ended up settling with Jarndyce, paying the man to call off his lawyer brother-in-law, not because they felt he had a legal position that might hurt them, but because the last thing a Vitelli wants is a day in court. Even a winning day in court. Now Starbuck knows that Jarndyce considers the Vitellis a meal ticket when times are bad, or maybe he wants to take his own family on a nice vacation. Starbuck would love to counter sue, to pay Jarndyce back for all the nuisances he has caused over the years.
But that would mean a day in court. And the last thing a Vitelli wants is a day in court.
Starbuck closes the folder and looks out the shaded window. He will arrive in Boston in time for lunch, which he will eat with an old law school buddy from years ago who has gone on to work for IBM. It is Starbuck's way of touching base with the man he could have been himself, and a reminder that they aren't all that different. They both use the law to protect their clients, which is what the law is meant to do. We live in a nation of laws; it only follows that, in many ways, we also live in a nation of lawyers.
After lunch, there is Vitelli business to look after. Starbuck has an office in Boston, as well as offices in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. So do the Vitellis. Starbuck will shuffle papers for the remainder of the afternoon, then check into his hotel for the night. Tomorrow morning he will drive out to Algren-on-the-Beach to evaluate this Buglaroni debate business.
Buglaroni. Starbuck has known this kid only for a couple of weeks now, and already he seems like more trouble than a room full of Jarndyces. First the whole movie-role business, and now this cutting off of team funds from Nighten Day. But then again, the Whale seems to have a fondness for the boy's grandmother, not to mention the fact that the boy's father is marginally connected to the Vitelli's with his car business. Since much of the activities of the Vitellis is based on loyalty, it only stands to reason that the Vitellis do what they can for a family that has been loyal to them all these years.
So tomorrow, Algren-on-the-Beach it will be.
Will the Quilty team enjoy The Wizard of Oz?
Will Bob Cratch and Tom Abelard enjoy Eyes Wide Shut?
Will Starbuck enjoy his first debate tournament?
Will Bradley and Gore ever be less than mind-numbingly dull?
Is it time for Nostrum to speak out against Harry Potter?
All this and morons in our next episode: "Hamsters and Eggs, or, I say it's prey and the hell with it!"
Go to the next episode Nov 10, 1999.