NEEDHAM, Mass. It’s 6 a.m. in this town of 31,000 west of Boston and Jim “Hat Trick” Hamtramick has just turned on his computer to write his daily post for “Crazy Suburban Dad,” the “blog” by which he chronicles his pratfalls and miscues as the father of two little girls, 8-year-old Tina and 10-year-old Chloe. “I’ve always been a funny guy,” Hamtramick tells this reporter, “but I don’t get much opportunity to use my sense of humor as quality control inspector at Metrowest Hasp & Flange,” the manufacturing company where he works. “I think today I’ll write something about my pathetic attempts at gardening,” he says with a self-satisfied smirk as he drops his fingers to his keyboard and begins to tap away.
Unbeknownst to Hamtramick, however, he’s about to fall victim to a covert law enforcement operation that has been monitoring his efforts over the past eighteen months due to wide variations between what he writes and reality. “There’s nothing particularly ‘crazy’ about this guy’s life,” says Fred Durston, a career lawyer with the Federal Trade Commission, the government agency charged with rooting out unfair and deceptive acts and practices on a national level, as he sits in an unmarked car outside Hamtramick’s home, waiting for the post to appear. “In fact, the guy’s downright boring, even by suburban dad standards.”
Durston and his partner Claudia Sevastian have accumulated a mass of evidence since their investigation began with an anonymous email from a neighbor, who thought he had been unfairly depicted as a “grumpy” old fart after Chloe Hamtramick’s soccer ball landed on his side of the hedge that runs between the two houses. “I did not say ‘Get off my lawn,’” the message from email@example.com read. “I said ‘get your ball off my lawn,’ so he’s liable for libel.”
From that initial “tip” the investigation broadened to include claims of ineptitude at bowling, fishing and home carpentry, as well as hyper-sentimental content that dwelled wistfully on his daughters’ growing pains. “Are you kidding me?” Sevastian says. “He spends his weekends playing golf and napping, those girls aren’t getting the attention they’ll need to become ball-busting MBAs and lawyers when they grow up.”
When the FTC enforcers have seen enough, they move in for the “collar,” knocking softly so as not to wake the children, then stepping aside to allow U.S. Marshall Jim Urby to ram down the door with the butt of his rifle. “Take your hands off the keyboard and keep them out where I can see them,” he barks, and the two lawyers move swiftly to secure evidence to be used against Hamtramick at a hearing for a preliminary injunction scheduled for Monday.
Exaggeration or “hyperbole” is an age-old literary technique, but humorless government bureaucrats are not noted for their ability to detect irony or “get” jokes. “What kind of sicko laughs about a grade-school dance recital,” says Sevastian, whose own daughter Genevieve played a zebra in an amateur production of Disney’s “The Lion King” last spring at Miss Yvonne’s School of Dance in nearby Wellesley, Mass. “This guy fancies himself a ‘humorist,’ which I guess is just a guy with a computer who thinks he’s funny.”
The penalties for disseminating deceptive information in interstate commerce are severe, with triple damages and attorneys’ fees available to both the government and to private citizens who bring claims against offenders such as Hamtramick. “I’m not saying I’m going to sue you,” wrote rocketspride123 in the “comments” section of Crazy Suburban Dad yesterday, “but if your stupid dachshund craps on my lawn again all bets are off.”