Rantman’s Notebook: The Bonsai Cow and other strange tales

You’ve probably seen the Bonsai Cow on our Site of the Week page (it was the feature last week), but if you missed it, you can still see it. As my introductory column here, I thought I should tell the story of how this page came to be.

I stole the idea from somewhere. I think it was in Cecil Adams’ The Straight Dope column. Somebody had written in and asked about the supposed “bonsai cattle” at a purported restaurant in Japan. The story was pretty much as you see on the page, with a corral full of miniature cows from which to choose your dinner, much like the lobster tank at a seafood restaurant. If I’m remembering correctly, Adams pretty much demolished the story, pointing out that beef has to be aged to be any good. In any case, the story stuck in my brain for years.

It came back into my mind as a part of an extended series of mind-games, which I hope you’ll enjoy. Before I get to that, proper credit must be given. Many of the stories I’m about to tell were borrowed from my good friend Bill Hinton, who is a genius. He also came up with the idea for “misfortune cookies” that I also stole from him, and a few other things I will eventually get around to swiping. Some of these stories were inspired by the shenanigans of Penn & Teller, who taught me that other people’s minds are my playground, as long as I don’t do any permanent damage. God bless Penn & Teller, even if they don’t believe in Him.

The story begins a few years back, when I was diligently serving my corporate masters at an advertising agency in Century City, which is an area of Los Angeles that serves as the media hub of the universe. This ad agency had hired a proofreader who was without a doubt the most dense person I had ever met in my life. He used to call the editorial desk of the L.A. Times to ask questions about proper spelling and punctuation on a regular basis. He was so dim he actually was surprised to get an AOL startup disk included with a magazine. “Can you believe it? I never heard of such a thing!” Oh, and he never shut up. Let me make that clear: HE NEVER SHUT UP. Every single thought that ran through his head came out his mouth. We finally had to isolate him in an empty room of the building. He had one saving grace, however: he was the most gullible person on earth.

So there I am, working away on a job that was an absolute mess, trying to untangle some disaster that a freelancer had inflicted on me. At one point, in a fit of frustration, I did what I normally do, I cracked a joke. “To hell with this,” says I, “I’m going to quit this stupid job and go work on my uncle’s marshmallow plantation!”

“Marshmallow plantation?” Says Mr. Dimbulb. I can tell by his tone of voice that he’s genuinely puzzled. I’m in a pissy mood, so I decide to go for it. I had a useful piece of trivia in the back of my mind, and had crafted a story around it a long long time ago, and had actually convinced somebody of its truth on an earlier occasion, so I decide to haul it out and see if it flies.

“Sure, didn’t you know? Marshmallows grow on plants.”

A pause. “Really? I never heard of such a thing.” (He said that a lot.)

“Thank you, God,” I whisper in fervent prayer of gratitude for this moron. I launch into my story. (Background, in case you want to try this at home: A long time ago, the sap from the marsh mallow plant was used as an emulsifier in the manufacture of candy, including the treat that shares its name. Nowadays, we use egg-white. But I’m not gonna tell my pigeon this.) I tell him to look it up; he’ll find it in the dictionary, there is a marshmallow plant. He grabs his dictionary and reads aloud. “See? They grow them on plantations in Georgia. My uncle raises the commercial type, that get used for Marshmallow Cream, Peeps and Mallomars.” I tell him about the harvest, having to be careful to brush all the seeds off when you take the marshmallow out of its pod. A few minutes later, another staffer walks into the room, and the pigeon tells him all about my uncle’s marshmallow plantation. I hurt myself suppressing the laughter. God has given me a great gift. My days have meaning and purpose now. I’m going to have a story for this guy every day. I’m going to push his gullibility to the bursting point. It’s a bright and glorious day in MacQuarrie-land.

So the next day I tell him about the Bonsai Cow Restaurant. He totally believes it. Success! In the days that follow, I tell him about the real-life “Jurassic Park” being developed in Siberia; researchers have impregnated african elephants with the sperm from frozen mastodons, and are now working to breed out the elephant traits, in hopes of producing a new herd of mastodons to put on exhibit to attract tourists. Then I tell him about the geneticists who have implanted DNA from the coca plant into cows, in order to produce a cow that gives chocolate milk. Unfortunately, the chocolate milk was bitter, and in order to make it taste good, they had to raise the cows’ blood sugar, making them diabetic. The first time the cows were milked, they went into insulin shock and died. One Monday morning, he asked me how my weekend was, and I told him that my daughter had lost her baby eyes.

“I never heard of such a thing!”

“You’re an only child, aren’t you?” I replied. “Obviously, your mother never mentioned it; you lose your baby eyes when you’re very young, so naturally you don’t remember it. Looks like Katie’s full-grown eyes are going to be green; they’re coming in nicely.”

On and on it went. Every B.S. story, every urban legend, anything I thought was too absurd to believe, he swallowed it all. I spent my days giggling in glee as I thought up stuff to tell him.

It was too good to last.

One fine morning, I walk into the office, and my gullible pal has a tupperware container of fresh strawberries on the desk. “Hey, Jim, would you like some strawberries?” he asks.

My opening. Hee! “Sure, thanks. You know, those strawberries will keep longer if you keep them in the dark.”

“Really?”

“Sure. You’ve heard of photosynthesis? Plants react to light. Keep your fresh fruits and vegetables in the dark and they’ll last longer.”

“I better put the lid back on.”

He’s biting! “Oh, that’s not good enough. That’s just the absence of light.” He looks puzzled. He’s apparently wondering how ‘dark’ is different from ‘the absence of light.’ Finally he goes for it.

“What do you mean?”

“You need to add some dark.”

“Dark?” I have him.

“Yeah, dark. Like photographers use in their darkrooms. You just go down to the photo supply store and get a bottle of Photographer’s Dark. They’ll try to sell you a whole gallon, but you can get it by the pint if you ask them. You just add a few drops of dark to the container….”

He’s baffled. “Photographer’s Dark? I…”

“Yeah. Look, you know photographers have darkrooms, right?”

“Yeah…”

“You know they have that red light on outside the door to let people know when they’re inside, right?”

“uh, yeah..”

“That light is so nobody opens the door and lets the dark out.”

“Oh.”

“So get yourself some dark from the photography store down the street.” He grabs a pencil and starts to write it down. He wants me to give him the exact information. I have him completely hooked, and I’m reeling him in.

Another of my co-workers can’t take it any more. Rich snaps. He yells. “OH COME ON!!! YOU CAN’T BE THAT STUPID!!” Mr. Dim looks stricken. He can’t believe what he’s hearing. He stares in disbelief as Rich explains to him that I’m pulling his leg. I’m laughing hysterically.

I left that job shortly thereafter. The dim guy never asked me if any of my stories were true. For all I know, he may be repeating them at this moment.

In any case, the tale of the Bonsai Cow was refined in the telling to Mr. Dim, and years later I decided to put up a home page for the restaurant.

You’d be amazed at how many people think it’s real. It makes life worth living to know that they’re out there, just waiting for their minds to be messed with. God bless ’em.


Next: The true story of the time I was robbed and the guy took a check.