“Bob Greene is on assignment.”

That’s a hoot. Of all the shameless lies ever published in a daily newspaper, that single sentence–slipped into Tempo twice this month in lieu of Bob’s column–tops even those coherent sentences occasionally attributed to Mayor Daley.

“On assignment”? As if any editor imaginable could send Bob rolling down the narrow-gauge tracks of his cramped itinerary. “Greene,” the grizzled editor barks, clamping down on the wet stump of a cigar. “Crank out ten more columns on Baby Richard!”

If such an editor did exist, he would be a bigger version of Bob. The size of Jabba the Hutt, surely, with a wig like Madame Pompadour’s. “Greene!” he slurs. “Find a string ensemble!”

Yes, a string ensemble. I knew we’d be in for a treat once Bob finally let go his white-knuckle grip on Richard and ventured back into the world, like a frightened rabbit poking its head outside its hole after a storm. But nothing prepared me for the insipidness of Bob’s first post-Richard column, “It’s the best thing I can do” (June 26).

Bob’s “assignment,” apparently, was to go to an awards banquet in South Bend, Indiana. There he was dumbfounded to find five high school students who were not smoking crack and sodomizing each other with baseball bats, but playing in a string quintet. For Bob this fresh discovery stirred “certain signs of hope,” a delay in the Final Age of Endless Horror he expects to crash down at any moment.

Bob lavishes attention on the five students, holding them up as marvelous freaks, anomalies in a nation where “a lot of things” seem “destined to go badly, to decline.” The quintet didn’t just play, it played “for hours on end, without a break.” The remarkable youths didn’t just finish for the evening, “they asked permission to go home because they had school the next morning.” You sense that Bob wishes for even more–for the musicians to perhaps rush off to night jobs at a thread factory. Alas, we’ll never know. As usual, Bob’s “assignment” didn’t go beyond the five minutes it must have taken him to heave himself up from the banquet table and lunge at the poor youths with a tape recorder to get an obligatory two-sentence quote from each one.

Bob’s assignment editor is evidently as idea-starved as his tinier, more humbly toupeed charge. Just a week after ending the Richard-a-thon, Bob was already filling up his space with snatches of stunningly inane dialogue from his autotheistic novel of two years back. In “The litany of adult experiences” (July 2), the Bob/narrator admits he would rather be spared suffering through life beyond adolescence by being given a magic “list of everything that’s going to happen to you in the next 50 or 60 years–so you don’t have to actually go through it.”

Could any editor assign that? “Greene! Your novel is coming out in paperback! Plug it like a five-dollar whore!”

Still, I suppose anything is better than Bob’s endless flagpole sitting over Baby Richard. Bob’s goodbye column to Richard, “The questions that will some day come” (June 25), is done with all the understatement of the death scene from Tristan und Isolde. Bob actually thanks “the patience” of his editors for enduring his string of Richard columns. The final column (O, were it true!) appears cribbed from the last scene of Casablanca. The justices from the Illinois Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court, Bob declares, will toss and turn late at night, plagued by haunting questions. “And they can be assured that those questions will come to them–maybe not right away, maybe not now, but some day, perhaps as they lie awake in the middle of the night.”

Soon, and for the rest of their lives, no doubt. For the rest of our lives too–Bob threatens to return to Baby Richard when “there is some development about Richard you ought to know about.

“Though not,” he adds, wistfully, “every day.”

That will be worth waiting for. “Greene!” the editor will snap. “Slide on out to Mokena. Richard’s about to learn how to ride a two-wheeler. See if he falls.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jeff Heller.