Ever since my friend Betsy alerted me that the feds had caught the gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, I’ve been intrigued.
“You know how they found him?” Betsy said over a taco. “They searched for clues about his girlfriend. She got her teeth cleaned once a month. That was one of the traits they used. She used to be a dental hygienist.”
Years on the lam and they caught the guy who — not to be too judgmental — comes across as basically the scum of the earth. There are so many riveting details going on here that it’s kind of hard to focus.
Such as, Why on earth would anybody want to be nicknamed “Whitey”? Did he ever consider changing it to something like “Jimbo” or “Skip”? There are lots of great nicknames out there and there’s no reason to get stuck with the old, colorless identity you’ve completely outgrown.
And, What kind of weirdo gets her teeth cleaned on a monthly basis? Good grief. Didn’t she have anything better to do? Didn’t they have cable? There are so many great shows on HBO these days, all of which I’d prefer watching than going to the dentist. Also, didn’t the dentist get suspicious when she paid him in cash every month?
But, anyway. Those are minor quibbles. What I’m really interested in is going on the lam or into the witness protection plan, both of which Whitey and his sparkling-toothed moll evidently did. I’ve thought about it off and on for a while, spurred on by my infatuation with The Sopranos — and particularly with what I consider the finest episode of the series, when Tony took Meadow to visit colleges.
You may remember it. Tony drove his daughter all over New England to look at potential colleges. It was a great time for a little father-daughter bonding, except for that brief interlude when Tony discovered a mob snitch and had to whack him. (My husband, coincidentally, took our daughter on a college tour that exact year. He swears their trip wasn’t nearly that exciting.) The whackee, who was in the witness protection program, just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when Tony saw him; he wasn’t doing anything as provocative as getting his teeth cleaned.
Based on all this evidence, I’ve decided I would probably be the worst person in the universe to go on the lam or enter the witness protection program. I would be horrible at pretending to be somebody else since, at this point in my life, I am mainly concerned with keeping a grip on my original identity. Also, I’m from Texas and I sound like it, and I have lots of liberal opinions I like to mouth off about, and I don’t think any of this is conducive to effectively disappearing. Also, I don’t think I’m a good enough actress to impersonate a Republican.
That said, fate can come along and whack you like a pissed-off mobster and all of a sudden, you’re in the witness protection program and you’d better keep your head down and your mouth shut. I think about that. What if that happened to me? What if I had to go undercover? What would be the telltale detail — something irrevocable I couldn’t change, in spite of myself — that would trip me up and land me in prison or render me dead? I’m thinking.
I’ve got it. Here I am, this dowdy little old woman with gray hair and a harsh Midwestern accent. I go to church all the time and wear a big “Tea Partier for Sarah Palin” button. I drive a gas guzzling car with a “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for the American” bumper sticker. I always smile sweetly and defer to everybody else and talk about the good old days before these newfangled computers just messed up life real good.
I live like this unobtrusively and unnoticed for a month or a year or a decade. Till somebody confuses “lie” and “lay” around me and I correct him. Or somebody cuts in front of me in traffic and I roll down my window and call him an asshole. In both cases, I’d forget my Midwestern accent and sound like a Texan.
It wouldn’t be the dentist that would do me in. But, like the gangster moll, I’m a predictable creature of habit when it comes to my mouth.
(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)
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