The Crab

A Column of High Finance and Decorum

by Dr. Al Ackerman


“Dear Dr. Al: I’ve heard that back in the mid-60s your friends called you “The Crab.” I wish you’d fill us in on how this nickname came about, if it isn’t too embarrassing,” writes a reader from Bethlehem, Pa.

This is undoubtedly a widespread longing. But in order to fill you in on how I came to be called “The Crab,” I have to first fill you in on how one summer I was taking a two week vacation from my regular hospital job and I got the idea that it might make an interesting experiment to go around town putting in bogus job applications, a routine that consisted of me scanning the help wanted columns until I found a dismal-sounding job about which I knew absolutely nothing, and then going right in and applying for it under an assumed name, which seemed preferable to using my own because it gave me a chance to see if anybody remembered “Harry Emerson Fosdick” or “Friedrich Engels,” though as it turned out they didn’t even remember “Charles Starkweather,” and nobody ever knew me for an impostor. I also made it a big point at each office I visited (this was one of the prime factors in my experiment) to personally exhibit different types of weird, shabby and inappropriate behavior.

I started out by answering an ad for “Price Change Clerk For Wholesale Plumbing Supply -- must know 10 key calculator.” This seemed made to order for my first venture into the realm of bogus job hunting because I was completely in the dark as to what a price change clerk might be, and I knew no more about the 10 key calculator than does Emily Fusselman’s rabbit. A rather humorless woman who looked a little like Mrs Tucker does on the lard cans and was the wife of the plumbing store owner interviewed me. Grudgingly she handed me a pencil and a few flimsy yellow forms to fill out and pointed me to a chair in the corner, and then proceeded to give me the double-o with a dismay that was clear and unalloyed. Mostly because the blue seer sucker suit I was wearing on that sweltering day hadn’t been cleaned or pressed since Christmas and I had gone three days without a shave or bath especially for the occasion. I’d also been careful to drink half a pint of fine Four Roses Whiskey before entering the establishment, and I reeked. I could feel her eyeing my filthy collar and subbly jowls and wrinkling her nose at the essence of Four Roses that came rolling off me at every breath, as from a pungent old cork. I spent a long, long time like that, hunched over the simple yellow forms, fumbling with my pencil, wheezing and sweating and mopping my face, giving every indication that if I managed to keep from passing out cold on the floor, it would be a real victory. Pretty soon the plumbing lady came over and asked me if I was alright. “You don’t look so good, Mr. Voltaire,” she said. “I can’t think of how you spell Travis County,” I said. “Oh,” she said. “Well, maybe you should come back another time when you’re feeling better--” I breathed on her some more and said, “It’s just that these ulcers I get on my leg make it hard to concentrate and I think that must be what’s hanging me up now because I started getting a big one last night and it’s been draining on me all morning.” She looked at my legs and stepped back. On this note the interview pretty well concluded, and I managed to control myself until I got out of the building.

The name I gave to this particular routine was “The Secret Drinker” and the reactions it elicited interested me to such an extent that I spent the next few days experimenting and trying out different variations on it. For example, at the offices of Church’s Chicken, where I applied fot the position of “Manager Trainee” under the name of “Fulton J. Sheen,” an honest but inveterate beer drinker, I had to get up twice to ask the secretary for more paper because it was taking a lot of space to list all of “Fulton J’s” arrests and hospitalizations. But I hung in there, and the secretary’s expression when she finally got a load of this strange and terrible human document was my reward. A day or so later at a northside blueprint firm with an immediate opening for “Civil Draftsman -- min. 5 years experience,” I showed up with an enormous purple wine stain down my front that was still wet and, having knocked into a couple of chairs on my way up to the receptionist’s desk, was quickly told that the civil drafting position had just been filled. You could have knocked me down with a hammer. “Well,” I said, throwing my eyes wildly around the office, “then do you need a civil draftsman?” (I didn’t get that job, either.) Another company downtown wanted “Salesman For Manufactured House Goods,” and by using the name “Felix Frankfurter,” along with a fixed smile and fairly clean clothes, I actually made it past the receptionist and had a short interview with the company sales manager, a Mr Dix. He was a rather spiritless-looking but not unsympathetic character and things didn’t go too badly at first. But there was no way to hide the deep thirst that raged inside me (or inside “Felix”) and before long I fell off the subject of manufactured house goods and into a fervid rambling disquisition on my fondness for all sorts of hot mulled rum drinks. Mr Dix, unable to ignore these conspicuous warning signs, sat through about five minutes of this and then eased me out of his office. “Honey,” I told him at the door, “remember to sweeten the rum drink with six tablespoons of honey!” He promised he would.

Hard by. In most of the personnel offices in this country there seems to be at least a tenuous rule in effect prohibiting the staff from attempting to hurt the prospective applicants by physical means. But there is no law against low psychology and many humiliating tricks are employed successfully to make the job hunter feel like a little gob of spit. So it was a heady sensation indeed for me to feel that I was, at least for the moment, turning the tables on this age-old vassalage, and I was coming out of these encounters higher than a kite, already leaping ahead in my mind to the next office and concocting new routines right and left.

“The Shouter,” “The Aggrieved Epileptic,” “Active T.B.,” “The Lonely Nose-picker of Avalon,” “Freaky Deaky.” I had hopes I might try out each and every one of these promising routines before my two week vacation was up, but this was not to be, and as it worked out, I only got to spring “The Shouter” on them. This was at a downtown savings and loan where the Assistant Manager, who resembled Ken (of Ken and Barbie fame) and wore lavender-tinted aviators and white suede loafers with little gold links on them, called me into his office after an interminable wait and interviewed me for the position of “Retail Banking Specialist.” I was wearing my best suit and had spruced myself up considerably for this one. Under the name of “Benedict ‘Dutch’ Spinoza,” I answered his questions in a nebulous way, making sure that with every sentence I uttered my voice crept up the scale and became louder. Toward the end I was frankly shouting. This alarming and crackbrained increase in volume was accomplished in such gradual stages that I don’t think he was ever precisely aware of what was going on or even where we’d left the tracks. I might have kept it up indefinitely until my voice failed or I burst a blood vessel, but the mystified, fidgety, discomfited look on his face was too much for me and I lost it. Laughing hysterically like a hyena I had to jump up and run out of there fast.

That was when it happened. Outside on the street, my own gales of hilarity distracted me so that I stepped right in the path of an oncoming truck and got clipped. I wound up with a mild concussion and two broken arms. (Editor’s Note: The awful implacable gods of mercantile are not lightly mocked.)

And so with a cast on each arm bent at the elbows and crooked out in front of me awkwardly that way for the next couple of months, it was inevitable that my friends should take to calling me “The Crab.”