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"Notions of decency' around Florida

Prude and Prejudice in Paradise:

Clothed in puckered moral fiber and a clenched cloak of decency, the ever-tense Palm Beach County Commission has cracked down on T-back-clad hot dog vendors, requiring that they vend their viands inside a 4-foot-high opaque enclosure from now on.

You say they might as well be wearing muumuus? That's the whole idea. The mini Iron Curtain. The Berlin Wall of the Mind. The Great Wall of Chintz.

The ordinance cites safety (a let's-pretend issue and they know it), esthetics (tell it to Botticelli) and "notions of decency." (Notions? Love that precise legal terminology.)

"We are not making them dress in black and cover their face like in Iran," the commission chairwoman weaseled. Close enough, Ma'am. It's only a matter of degree. It's the commissioners who ought to be covering "their face."

Bounding aboard the ban wagon, Hillsborough County also outlawed thongy bottoms in public. The gist of the commission's rationale can be summed up in the cry of one member of the audience: "Permissiveness! Permissiveness!" It's hard to speak in complete sentences when you can't pull together a complete thought.

Heaven forfend that the dewy public eye should fall upon any square inch of Pulchritude Unbound that may be a millimeter over the official foul line from Skin That's Okay to Look At. Sarcasm aside, the ban could prove welcomely protective in certain cases. A glance around your average nudist resort will tell you some individuals who believe the human body isn't shameful have bodies that dispute the point.

Speaking of governmental goofiness, the ultimate absurdity may have occurred in the case of Denise Perrigo, up in New York, who called to ask La Leche League a question about breast-feeding and got the Rape Crisis Center instead, which called the child-abuse hotline. Instead of getting her question answered, the mother got arrested,

grilled and her child confiscated. Truly a tragedy of errors.

The outrages kept piling up _ dumb mistake heaped upon dumb refusal to admit it _ and peaked when the Department of Social Services stated in writing and presumably with a straight face that Denise's parents were unacceptable temporary guardians during the dispute because they didn't believe any abuse had taken place.

And so we carry on the rich tradition of Jurassic jurisprudence: Anyone who denies guilt must be guilty because that's what a guilty person would do.

Denise eventually got her child back, considerably the worse for care. I don't know about you, but it scares me more than crime in the streets or ozone depletion that these are the people running things.

Edward Albee was sunbathing sans-trunkeroos in a secluded area of Key Biscayne. Secluded, that is, until the long-sleeved arm of the law arrived, beheld "indecent exposure" and arrested him.

Today's essay question: If a guy's pants fall down in a forest and there are no prudes there to see it, is there a sin?

You say you need more evidence of official inanity? Let's hie ourselves to Marietta, Ga., where Jilly's barbecue restaurants were seized by the federal government. Now, because Uncle Sam is the proprietor, anyone hired to sling ribs there has to undergo an FBI check.

"As long as you've already got barbecue sauce on your fingers, Bill Bob, come on over here and get fingerprinted."

Go figure why a cook, waitress or dishwasher needs federal security clearance in a public hash house. Is there a danger they're going to pass secret recipes to spies from Iraqi barbecue joints, tapping out messages on the ribs like Lionel Hampton?

Then again, it might be nice, after a long day of busing greasy plates, to amble over to the neighborhood tavern, strike up a chat with a comely customer, hear her ask what it is you do and be able to reply, "I work for the government."

According to scientists, new findings indicate that Neanderthal man was not as primitive as we thought he was. That's one thing future scientists will never say about us.

Where even the sewers are up-scale: It was Palm Beach, wouldn't you know, that approved chemicals in the system to give the sewers a lilac scent. As a colleague pointed out, it's just the opposite in St. Pete. We use reclaimed water in the garden. Our lilacs have a sewer scent.

In closing, let us give praise to the inventor of the Ratapult, a new development in rat traps that flings unwelcome rodentia 50 feet through the air into a cage, bucket or what-have-you, where they can be read their rights and further dealt with. In early tests in an infested warehouse, the Ratapult launched 70 rats in two days. Animal rights activists are calling it inhumane. Rats are calling it the best ride since the Python.

Don Addis is a cartoonist for the St. Petersburg Times.