Backstory: Where talking heads come in all professions

Washington has a culture of punditry that permeates everything, even home repair. I learned this last week when water started dripping through my ceiling, next to the chimney, during a rainstorm. I looked up, and saw a long crack, and those evil bubbles plaster gets when it's soaked.

When you find water in your house where it shouldn't be, it's disorienting. Things seem unhinged, as if you've turned on "Mystery!" and the host is Tim Russert. I phoned my neighbor. Let's call him "Ed." That's his real name, but he'll only be humiliated in front of people on our block.

"Ed," I said, "do you know any roof guys?"

"No," he said. "Do you know any window guys?"

"No," I said, "why do you ask?"

"I've got extra pane things on the outside that come off."

"Those are storm windows," I said. "You'll need them."

Ed paused. He seemed irritated. "They're extra," he said. "Extra is weird."

I forget - this is Washington. Nobody's practical. People can speak Urdu but they've never mowed a lawn.

So I picked up the community paper - "The Northwest Astonisher" - and called the first contractor listing. AAA Capital Associates. Sounded good. Also, they were available. I wouldn't have to stalk workmen at Lowe's.

Two guys and a truck arrived a half hour later. "Thanks for getting here quick," I said. "Why are you wearing ties?"

The one that looked like a stick just stared back.

"What's the story?" he said.

To the point. Another good. We went up the backstairs to the Room of Sobbing and Woe, as I was calling it. The bubbles had spread. If you lay on your back they looked like a topographical map of Iraq. "What's your estimate?" I said.

Mr. Stick paused, then looked grave. "Well, Jim," he said, "there are three essential points to be made here."

"My name's not Jim," I said.

"First, this roof has bestrode your house for years," he said. "Typically, roofs grow complacent in time and make mistakes, a drip here, a drop there. Approval dips. And they don't change on their own. They need reinforcement."

"The second is that this could well portend a spreading of the rain's power, as it senses roof weakness," he added. "This time next year it could be water calling the shots."

His partner, who had a lot of hair and resembled a badger, started to snort. "What's your third point?" I asked.

"Points just come in threes," he said. He nodded, as if this were profound.

Then Mr. Badger went ballistic. "Mor-TON!" he shouted. "THAT'S LAMER THAN A NO-LEGGED BULLFROG! THIS IS ABOUT THE RAIN! IT'S GOTTA MAKE A POINT! WET, COLD, FOLKS WANT TO KNOW: WHERE'S IT STAND! OTHERWISE, BLAMMO, ROOF SMACKDOWN!"

With this, he tried to slap my drop-leaf table, hard, but missed. He toppled behind the sofa, his tassel loafers waving in the air. "Hokay," I said. "I'll call you if you get the job."

Outside, the weather was clearing. You could see a double rainbow in the direction of American University. Badger brightened. Stick seemed pleased, too, as if he'd played his audience well. Next door Ed was taking off his storms. I waved. He waved back. AAA Capital Associates waved, too. Then they stopped, and peered, as if in awe.

"What's with those pane thingies?" said Badger.

"Your neighbor's got extra windows," said Stick. "Weird."

The Larry King Show
(that only California satirist Chuck Cohen saw)

KING: Vice President Dick Cheney, thank you for coming here tonight.

CHENEY: Thank you for finding me, Larry.

KING: Let me start with a very frank question.

CHENEY: Give it to me with both barrels, Larry.

KING: What do you really think of President Bush?

CHENEY: I think he's a wonderful president.

KING: Good. Great. And Donald Rumsfeld, I assume you know him too?

CHENEY: Yes, Don and I meet once or twice a week.

KING: Fine, and Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of...

CHENEY: Yes, I meet with her, too. When I feel like it, of course.

KING: Of course. I want to throw some names at you.

CHENEY: Fire away, Larry.

KING: Bob Barker.

CHENEY: Game show host.

KING: Good. How about J. Edgar Hoover.

CHENEY: Uh...he's dead.

KING: Excellent point. Steve Lipschultz.

CHENEY: I'm sorry, I don't believe I know the man.

KING: My accountant. Just wanted to give him a plug. Let's take a call.

Amsterdam, you're on the air. Wow, all the way from...

CHENEY: Europe?

KING: Yes, and what's your question, Amsterdam, Europe?

CALLER: Is the US stuck in a quagmire in Iraq and unable to leave for decades?

KING: Sorry, Amsterdam, there's a 10-word limit on questions. Newport, R.I.

CALLER: Yes, how does the vice president feel about Scooter Libby?

KING: Who happens to be here next week with Beyoncé. What do you think about the Skeeter?

CHENEY: You mean Scooter.

KING: Exactly. How close are you to his nickname?

CHENEY: His nickname?

KING: Yes, are you committed to it?

CHENEY: I am committed to it.

KING: You wouldn't ask him to change it for political reasons?

CHENEY: Not unless he asks me to.

KING: America will find that out next week, when he and Beyoncé share the hot seat here. Billings, you're on the air.

CALLER: Yes, are we planning to invade Iran?

KING: I believe it's Iraq. With a Q. Sorry, Mr. Cheney, but we all get confused. Iran. Iraq. Dubuque. Des Moines.

CHENEY: It happens to all of us, Larry.

KING: Just what I told Mike Brown when he was on with Phyllis Diller.

CHENEY: A heckuva show, Larry.

KING: Exactly So, once again, what do you think of Mr. Bush? Has your opinion changed since the show began?

CHENEY: Still wonderful.

KING: Great. Thank you. Tomorrow, our guests will be the Rev. Al Sharpton and the pope. The topic is "Bingo. Pro. Con. In between."

Laugh lines

"It was reported today that plans are under way to build a new five-star hotel in Baghdad. Unlike most hotels, all the rooms will be smoking."
- Conan O'Brien

"The prime minister of France told Parliament on Tuesday that because of 14 days of rioting by disaffected Arab and African youth, 'The French Republic faces a moment of truth when we must ask ourselves how to only keep the ones that are good at soccer.' "
- Tina Fey, Saturday Night Live

"Boy, here's the kind of story that could happen to anybody. A woman in Iowa, she gets up in the morning. She's making her coffee and she opens it up and she's dipping out the coffee and she finds in the can of Folgers Coffee a dead turtle. A dead turtle - and Folgers, I think, handled it pretty well. They said, 'Well, of course, ma'am, that's the prize in every can.' "
- David Letterman

"The film 'Bee Season' opened over the weekend. It's about national spelling bees. It's about kids and spelling bees. Today President Bush called it the scariest movie he's ever seen."
- Jay Leno

New Jersey recently solicited ideas from the public for a new state slogan. Among the suggestions:
• New Jersey: You Got a Problem With That?
• Most of Our Elected Officials Have Not Been Indicted.
• New Jersey: It Always Smells Like This.
- AssocIated Press

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