The yuck of the Irish

Parents of a girl killed in car crash sue a rent-a-car company, claiming Irishmen are "bound to get drunk."

By Douglas Cruickshank

Published May 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

If you find the notion of devastation on a biblical scale unsettling, you might want to stop reading right about now. OK, you asked for it, but I don't want any tears later. I've got some good news and some bad news. The bad news -- and I'm warning you, it's pretty bad -- is that a kilometer-long asteroid looks to be on a collision course with the earth. Really. Seems a kooky little flying rock -- no larger, say, than Woomera, South Australia -- that goes by the name of 1999 AN10 is racing toward our garden planet this very moment.

"An Australian amateur astronomer," the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Thursday, "has revealed [AN10] as the most deadly known object in outer space." The astronomer, named Frank Zoltowski (of course), spotted the murderous mega-boulder rocketing toward Earth while "searching the sky last week with his $7,200, 30-centimetre diameter telescope from his front yard at Woomera, South Australia." Bummer, huh?

The good news is that this Grenade of the Gods is 160 million kilometers away, and come to find out is not exactly zooming at the planet, but leisurely cruising toward its target at a glacial 45 kilometers per second. At that slothful pace it won't arrive until 2027, and by then, frankly, many of us may be looking for something fast and final to put us out of our misery, because we're going to be damn sick and tired of the Clan of the Cave Bear lifestyle we've had to adopt for two and half decades since the Y2K bug brought an end to civilization as we knew it, including all Pottery Barn stores, the entire north wing of Aaron Spelling's mansion and several of the Queen's best corgis.

Not known as alarmists, the self-effacingly named Minor Planet Center in the U.S. "has posted it on its Internet home page as a new threat to the world," the Sydney newspaper stated. What's more, the "astronomer ... and member of NASA's committee assessing the danger of near-Earth objects, Mr. Ken Russell, said, 'This is the first known object which is on a potential collision course with Earth which is large enough to cause a disaster on a global scale.'" (Stop that infernal whimpering, I warned you it was bad.) "If AN10 hit," Russell said, merrily, "it would lift enough dirt into the atmosphere to cause an impact winter." He then let out an eerie chuckle, threw on a parka and excused himself to go purchase a new vacuum cleaner.

Meanwhile, Zoltowski, the amateur astronomer and troublemaker who, along with his fancy-schmancy telescope, we can thank for igniting this interstellar hysteria, offered these words of comfort: "Someday, somewhere, something is going to hit. It is just the environment of the solar system." Gee, Frank, that really makes us all feel so much better. And the Morning Herald's article also sounded a reassuring final note: "Even if it does pass Earth [in 2027] ... The object will return in 2038 and will be even more of a threat." At which point, Mr. Russell popped back in, all ruddy cheeked and panting, with this bright idea: "It's small enough that we could probably divert it from impact if we wanted to." Right-o, Kenny, and I'm the Queen of Romania and Bruce Willis is my king.

And what does he mean by "if we wanted to"?

So, is there any upside to AN10? Sure: You 20-year-olds don't have to worry about investing in IRAs. Go ahead and spend it all on chartreuse sweaters, Jivaro Indian haircuts and Granny Clampett footwear.

Also here on Earth, somewhat north of Zoltowski's front yard, the Ontario,
Canada, economy is getting back on track after tedious "man of principle"
and has-been rocker Ted Nugent reversed himself and is now
not encouraging American hunters to boycott Ontario over its
cancellation of the spring bear hunt. Nugent, who is neither big nor fat,
but otherwise shares certain Al Franken-defined characteristics with
Rush Limbaugh, bravely called for the boycott, he said, because he
wanted to stand up for the rights of hunters. According to an Associated
Press report, the province canceled the hunt because it was leaving bear
cubs orphaned. But the musically challenged Nugent, not known for his
intimate relationship with deep thinking, said the ban was inspired by
"lunatic fringe" animal rights groups.

And in Orlando, Fla., Dollar Rent-a-Car was hit with a lawsuit brought by the Irish relatives of a woman passenger, 24-year-old Carmel Cunningham, killed in a drunk-driving crash. London's Daily Telegraph reported that the suit, filed in Orange County Circuit Court on behalf of Cunningham's parents, asserted that Dollar "either knew or should have known about the unique cultural and ethnic customs existing in Ireland which involve the regular consumption of alcohol at pubs as a major component of Irish social life." The rental company, the suit contended, should not have allowed the car's driver and Cunningham's boyfriend, Sean McGrath (who survived and is now at large), "to take the vehicle because he was Irish and, therefore, bound to get drunk."

This brilliant legal strategy -- which urges Dollar to employ a
rental policy that violates the United States Constitution, while simultaneously slurring the nationality of the lawyer and his client -- should be put to wider use. Johnnie Cochran should ask Dollar not
to rent to blacks because they might get fried chicken grease on the
upholstery. Alan Dershowitz might consider requesting that Dollar not do business
with Jews because they'd cheat the company. The possibilities are endless!

Strangely, Irish-American groups found the groundbreaking strategy hard to swallow
and the Cunninghams' lawyer "from Kilsheelan in County Tipperary" had to
apologize and amend the lawsuit, blaming instead the fact that "Irish,
British and many Caribbean tourists drive on the 'wrong' side of the

Now, just once, can I cite a single throbbing, blood-engorged fact without your thinking it's some kind of crude sexual allusion? Thank you. Friday the 21st was day one of International Pickle Week. Statistics show that Americans eat approximately nine pounds (!) per person annually of the phallus-shaped vegetableoid vittles, while the Pickle Packers International trade group's "crunch guidelines" for pickle perfection require that a bite into a perfect pickle be audible from a minimum of 10 paces away.

It's no surprise, I suppose, that Pickle Packers International has little interest in linear narrative and formulas for dramatic structure. If it did, the group's press materials would have included this well-known recipe for the classic story (the author of which time and toxins have erased from my memory, though it sounds like something Nelson Algren might have said): "1. Boy meets girl. 2. Girl gets boy into pickle. 3. Boy gets pickle into girl."

Finally, let's raise an appreciative memorial pickle to Del Close, who's now spending his time bathed in the great cosmic spotlight somewhere beyond AN10. Close, an original member and onetime director of Chicago's Second City improvisational comedy group, died of emphysema on the 4th of March, age 64. Second City was the proving ground for performers such as Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Gilda Radner, film director Harold Ramis, Joan Rivers and John Belushi, among many others, and Close was an influence on all of them. He was also a member of the precursor to Second City, Compass Players, which included Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

After his excesses got him booted from Second City in the mid-'60s, Close went on to produce some of the early Grateful Dead concerts, co-found the
ImprovOlympic comedy school/nightclub with partner Charna Halpern in 1984, devise the SCTV television series, appear in TV and movies, and co-author (with Halpern and Kim "Howard" Johnson) "Truth in Comedy," a book on his philosophy of improvisation. "The world is a slightly better place for having improvisation in it than before," Close once remarked. "There's something about it that says something positive about the human spirit."

Gone, but still working, Del Close will appear on stage again soon in a Chicago production of Hamlet. A fellow of infinite jest, he left his skull to the Goodman Theater Company with the request that it be cast as Yorick.

Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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