Steve Allen and I are having a discussion about people and the stupid things they say, the stupid things they do.
He asks, "Do you know my story about the soup?"
About the soup?
"I'm in a hotel, several years ago, in some large southern city, a lovely hotel, where most of the room service menu is in French.
"When I call to place my order, I ask, 'And what is your soup du jour?'
"The woman says, 'My what?'
" 'Your soup du jour.' "
"She says, 'I don't rightly know.'
"So I say, 'Well, I'm in no particular hurry. I'm sure there must be somebody there who can tell you what the soup du jour is. I'll wait.'
"The women excuses herself, and a minute later, very cheerfully, she comes back on the line and says, 'That, sir, is the soup of the day.' "
He laughs a familiar Steve Allen laugh.
Reminds him of the time in The Times he read about a woman whose dinner date told her, "Don't order the soup du jour. I tried it in Chicago and it was just awful."
While neither of us fancies himself the sharpest tack in the box, we both can't seem to avoid a staggering amount of "dumbth," to use a word Allen coined.
I tell him about something I saw on a TV program that is hosted by Jay Leno, which used to be hosted by Johnny Carson, which used to be hosted by Jack Paar, which used to be hosted by Steve Allen.
"Leno asks a couple of college football players, 'Do you think Mount Rushmore is man-made or a natural phenomenon?' "
"The first guy says, 'Natural.'
"Leno says, 'Oh, so you think four presidents' faces just suddenly popped out of a mountain in South Dakota?' "
I propose that these guys might never have heard of South Dakota. They might think Mt. Rushmore is a movie with Bill Murray.
It wouldn't surprise Steve Allen a bit.
His new book, "Dumbth: The Lost Art of Thinking," includes a story about a DuPont executive who, when he tells people he's from Delaware, is sometimes asked, "Delaware? Which state is that in?"
In school, we had to learn the 50 state capitals. In school today, do they even learn the 50 states?
A national study, according to Allen, revealed that 24% of Americans believe that Delaware is a city.
Another concluded that approximately a third of American high schoolers could not locate the United States on a map of the world.
Another found that American children, ages 8 to 12, could on the average identify 5.2 alcoholic beverages, but only 4.8 presidents.
And it's not only kids.
Take the flight attendant who told Allen she had two kinds of bread, "plain and kirdwent." He had never heard of kirdwent. She didn't know what it was, either. It turned out to be a roll with currants.
I recently had a flight where a woman sitting next to me, requesting red wine, asked for the "Mer-LOT."
Allen collects these kind of stories. At times, he can't believe his ears.
To test his own theory of dumbth, he once took a TV camera crew into a New York garment district and stopped people on the street to ask:
"If a person running for president was an acknowledged heterosexual, would that matter to you?"
"I wouldn't vote for him," one man said.
"Just because he's a heterosexual?"
One by one, virtually every person Steve stopped said that if an admitted heterosexual ran for president, it was something "you'd have to think about," or "no, I could never vote for that."
One said he might vote for a female heterosexual, but never for a male heterosexual.
Oh, the dumbth out there.
Allen was no less amused or amazed by this than when he quoted Dan Quayle's support of efforts "to limit the terms of members of Congress--especially members of the House and members of the Senate."
In his office in Van Nuys, with books wall to wall, Allen, 76, writes when he isn't reading and reads when he isn't writing. "Dumbth" is his 52nd book. Steve Allen doesn't belong to the Book of the Month club; he IS the Book of the Month club.
He once had a personal secretary who was bright, ambitious, a college graduate.
She was supposed to decline an invitation for Allen to speak at the United Nations because he had a prior commitment in Los Angeles on that date. But she didn't.
She thought he could do both, since one was in the afternoon and the other at night.
"I don't know where the U.N. is," the woman eventually admitted, whereupon she also added that she didn't know WHAT the United Nations is.
Wish I'd been there.
I could have told her, Delaware is one of the United Nations.
Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles CA 90053. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org