The Weekender, April 24, 2020


This week, I managed to run into a few dead ends. That’s not a complaint — exploring trivia for interesting stories often has that problem. The downside isn’t wasted time so much as it is the dissatisfaction of not having anything to share.

Today, I want to try something a bit different: I’m going to share some of those dead ends and why I didn’t turn them into regular Now I Know stories. 

Why do trucks have stuffed animals attached to their grills?
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. It’s not uncommon to see teddy bears or other plush toys attached to the front of trucks — maybe less common than it was when I was growing up, who knows, but I’ve seen a few here and there even somewhat recently. In general, I’ve found that odd traditions have a fun story behind them, but in this case, not so much. In 2005, the New York Times investigated the question, only to find that “the grille-mounted plush toy [was] a product of a tangle of physical circumstance, proximate and indirect influence, ethnic tradition, occupational mindset and Jungian archetype.” That’s probably the least-fun sentence I’ve ever read.

How Tim Duncan became a great basketball player
I actually got pretty far writing this one and did a good amount of research in the back story, digging through old newspapers. The short version: Tim Duncan, a basketball superstar who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this year, almost never played the game. Duncan grew up in Saint Croix on the U.S. Virgin Islands and, before Hurricane Hugo devastated the island in 1989, he was training to be an Olympic-level swimmer and had barely touched a basketball court. Hugo destroyed the only Olympic-sized pool on the island and Duncan ended up switching to basketball.

Good story, right? But I skilled this one because as I wrote it, I discovered a missing piece — one that I couldn’t write tactfully for some reason. Duncan’s mother died, indirectly, from Hugo’s devastation — she had breast cancer and the medical system on the island was wiped out, making it effectively impossible for her to get adequate treatment. Many of the sources I looked at connected the loss of his mother to the other losses suffered from the hurricane, suggesting that Duncan quit swimming in part because he was so upset about his mother’s death. And in any event, I didn’t really want to put a silver lining on a hurricane that killed two people in his town, injured dozens more, and destroyed two-thirds of the buildings. It seemed too trite.

In 2017, Duncan wrote an impassioned plea for supporting the Islands after another hurricane hit there; that’s probably a better thing to share. You can read that, here.

What happens to the coins people toss into fountains?
I really, really wanted there to be a single story here. There isn’t; the basic conclusion is “it depends on the fountain.” The Atlantic’s investigation, here, is pretty fun — it just isn’t good trivia, so not great for a regular Now I Know.

And one more:
The problem — there wasn’t much more to the story beyond the headline. The headline: “Fake cop attempts to pull over real cop in Virginia.”


The Now I Know Week in Review

Monday: Meet Her Royal Not-Quite-Highness — the Queen’s rehearsal stand-in.

Tuesday: The Nazi’s Chocolate Bomb — Thankfully, it failed.

Wednesday: The Singer Who Couldn’t Really Sing — Please listen to the “music” in this one.

Thursday: The Pigeons Who Needed a Proctologist — I’m sure I missed a pigeon poop joke.

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads for the weekend.

1) “The Weirdly Enduring Appeal of Weird Al Yankovic” (New York Times Magazine, 36-minute read or 58-minute listen, April 2020). In some cases, when I hear a song, I realize I know the Weird Al-parody lyrics better than the real ones. 

2) “An innocent man spent 46 years in prison. And made a plan to kill the man who framed him.” (CNN, 36 minutes, April 2020). The subhead: “Richard Phillips survived the longest wrongful prison sentence in American history by writing poetry and painting with watercolors. But on a cold day in the prison yard, he carried a knife and thought about revenge.”

3) “When Housewives Were Seduced by Seaweed” (Collectors Weekly, 10 minutes, November 2013). Thanks to reader Christy C. for sharing this very odd hobby (although who am I to talk about odd hobbies?). The first paragraph: “Among quaint fads of the 19th century, like riding bicycles or playing board games, one sticks out like a sore thumb—the Victorian-era obsession with seaweed. That’s right: Affluent Victorians often spent hours painstakingly collecting, drying, and mounting these underwater plants into decorative scrapbooks. Why seaweed?” 

Have a great weekend!