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Literature / Callahan's Crosstime Saloon

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"Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased; thus do we refute entropy."
— Callahan's Law

A series of short stories and novels by author Spider Robinson, which has inspired a video game from former Sierra designer Josh Mandel, a sourcebook for the GURPS role-playing game, and even a long-standing online roleplaying newsgroup. The title saloon can only be found if you need to be there. Most of the regulars are ordinary people scarred by tragedies and hardships, finding comfort and joy in their shared company and pun competitions.

The bar also has its share of unusual regulars and visitors, including an android built by aliens bent on world domination, time travelers, a vampire that refuses to prey on humans, talking animals, and a teleporting cat.

    Books in this series 
  • Callahan's Crosstime Saloon (1977)
  • Time Travelers Strictly Cash (1981)
  • Callahan's Secret (1986)
  • Callahan's Lady (1989)
  • Lady Slings the Booze (1992)
  • The Callahan Touch (1993)
  • Callahan's Legacy (1996)
  • Callahan's Key (2000)
  • Callahan's Con (2003)

Provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Decay: Not a particularly ruinous case, but the books depict Pyotr as a "vampire" only in the sense that he has a genetic condition where his main source of nourishment is filtering people's blood through special glands in his teeth. The PC game, on the other hand, treats him as a traditional vampire from a town in Romania populated by scores of Universal Horror-style monsters; Jake even has to trick them into believing he's a monster too to be allowed into their version of Callahan's. When Pyotr traveled home he evidently did so by shipping himself in a coffin. Kind of understandable as Spider himself never got much use out of the character beyond that one story, and there wasn't an awful lot to adapt from.
  • Author Avatar: The narrator, Jake Stonebender, is revealed to be an alternate-dimension version of Robinson. Whenever he happens to be depicted on a book cover, he is always drawn as a portrait of Spider.
  • Author Filibuster: Quite rare, but Spider lets one or two slip by as the series carries on. For example, Lady Slings the Booze has one such digression where Mike Callahan talks at length why rapists, instead of imprisonment, should just be raped in turn... by someone like Mike; and a later discussion about how killing anarchists should only be a misdemeanornote .
  • Banana Republic: Tom Hauptman was imprisoned by one for ten years, and becomes a "time traveler" when he tries to reintegrate with a society that moved on without him.
  • Band of Brothels: Lady Sally's.
  • The Bartender: Mike Callahan, and then Jake Stonebender. Tom Hauptman sometimes fills in when they need a break.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Hitler was an alien spy trying to get humans to kill each other off so his species could eat them.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Callahan's daughter, Mary. This is what makes her attractive to both Jake and her eventual husband, Mickey Finn.
  • Bigger on the Inside: Inverted, Squish's saucer is smaller on the inside because they haven't mastered the technology yet. One wonders why they bother installing it.
  • Blessed with Suck: The precog in "Fivesight" can only foresee unpleasant events — and he can't prevent them from happening, only mitigate the effects somewhat. Fittingly enough, his name is Cass Anders.
  • "Blind Idiot" Translation: Discussed. The regulars have a riddle night wherein one must use a series of blind idiot translations to come up with proper answers. When Spider put one of these in a story published in Analog with his address and the promise that anyone who successfully completed the riddle would get a chit for a free drink at Callahan's, he had enough incorrect and/or boring letters to re-insulate his attic.
  • Born Lucky: The Lucky Duck, although in his case it's not good luck or bad luck—just weird luck.
  • Brutal Honesty: Mary's general attitude comes down to being unafraid of being honest whatever the social cost. In "The Blacksmith's Tale" for instance we find out that the main reason Mickey Finn came to Earth was because he figured that by the time he'd need maintenance after escaping his masters we'd be at a technology level capable of supplying what he needed. The regulars are down in the mouth that he didn't do it out of love for our species and our finer qualities, but Mary tells them they're dumb for expecting this of someone to whom we're at basically the level of chimpanzees.
  • Celebrity Resemblance: Yes, Joe Quigley looks a lot like Dan Rather. He's sick of hearing it.
  • Celestial Bureaucracy: In the PC game it turns out the universe was created by a divine corporation, and they're not seeing enough return on investment to keep it running.
  • Centipede's Dilemma: Dink Fogerty is defeated using this technique in the story titled "The Centipede's Dilemma".
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: After being arrested, if Al Phee tries to make another unauthorized time jump he'll be stricken with permanent BO.
  • Combinatorial Explosion: Averted in the game. Nearly everything has a unique description. Helped along by Jake's Bag of Spilling, where he only holds onto a couple objects through multiple adventures.
  • Con Man: Several, including Maureen and Mei-Ling, but the hat goes off to Willard, AKA The Professor, who is frequently described as the very best on the East Coast, if not in the entire country.
  • Cyanide Pill: In Callahan's Lady, a KGB agent bites down on a suicide capsule rather than submit to the Mind-Control Device that a new visitor is using against him and the rest of the brothel.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: Bureau of Unnecessary Repetition and Pointless Redundancy.
  • Designated Driver: Pyotr is a designated driver for any patron who requires one at Callahan's Place. He is also an ethical vampire who siphons off nutrients and toxins from their blood in exchange. This has the beneficial side-effect of his 'clients' waking up without a hangover. This is what ends up giving him away to Jake, who has a unique metabolism and doesn't get hangovers. Until Pyotr has to drive him home a couple nights in a row, that is.
  • Did You Just Scam Cthulhu?: How Jake saves the day at the end of the PC game. The corporate gods who run the universe have found no worthwhile reason to keep it running, until it turns out it's the only universe they've ever seeded to develop humor. One of them allocates a bit of humor to another universe he's created, and Jake uses his stolen password to access the corporate mainframe to allocate it back to Earth's universe. This convinces the Celestial Bureaucracy to turn the universe back on, as there's only one universe with this curious quantity they'd like to preserve and study.
  • Do Not Go Gentle: All of the patrons give an epic one to Tom Hauptmann at the end of "The Time Traveller", persuading him that life is worth living.
  • Don't Ask, Just Run: Discussed Trope in Callahan's Secret, where a rookie to the New York City bomb squad specifically thinks "If he's running, I need to get the hell out of here!" when he sees his superior, Sergeant Noah Gonzalez, take off running in the middle of a defusing operation.
  • Dumb Muscle: The finale of "Callahan's Lady" introduces Tony Donuts, a thug of enormous physical prowess who is so dumb that he's almost impossible to con.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: Lampshaded by Noah in the game when he notes how often people are injured by others trying to drag them out of a wrecked car before the "inevitable" explosion.
  • Evil Stole My Faith: This happens to the Rev. Tom Hauptmann while spending 10 years in a Latin American prison, losing his wife and his place in the world in the process. The Callahan's gang, and his reaction to a robbery at the bar, reassure him that even with changing times, right and wrong remain the same.
  • Famous Ancestor: Josie Bauer might be the daughter of science fiction author Philip José Farmer.
  • Feghoot: Tall Tales Night.
  • Finger in a Barrel: Done in one of the books, but in this case the character in question was Immune to Bullets.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: How Tom Hauptman feels after ten years in prison with no contact with the outside world in "The Time Traveller".
  • Fun with Palindromes: In The Callahan Touch, every chapter title is a palindrome. Notably, the chapter in which Nikola Tesla visits the bar glories in the title, "I, Madam, I Made Radio. So I Dared. Am I Mad? Am I?"
  • Gadget Watches: The watch that can stop time in Lady Slings the Booze.
  • Getting the Boot: In the 1940s, a man named Big Beef McCaffery tried to stiff Mike Callahan. Callahan responded by throwing him out the door. Without opening it first. The resulting crack in the door was left unrepaired and served as a reminder for the next forty years.
  • Glass Weapon: In "The Law of Conservation of Pain", one of the guest characters has a futuristic gun made of glass. Jake Stonebender shatters it by playing a high frequency note on his guitar.
    • The reason the gun is glass, in case you were wondering, is because metal couldn't be brought back in time but glass could.
  • Good-Guy Bar
  • Groin Attack: How Tony Donuts (his son, Little Nuts, hopefully merely inherited the name) got his sobriquet. It was said that one person tried to stop him from raping the guy's wife — so Tony took a hammer and a pair of broadhead nails, and attached the would-be rescuer to a table in profound fashion.
  • Historical In-Joke: Joe Quigley's resemblance to Dan Rather accidentally causes the famous "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" attack against Rather in 1986. Given the number of times that the resemblance is mentioned without mentioning the name, this also counts as the payoff of a Brick Joke.
  • Historical Rap Sheet: In "Unnatural Causes" a team of alien Krundai are responsible for many harmful acts in Earth's history, including: starting riots, wars and revolutions, causing the downfall of the Roman Empire, assassinations, promoting drug use and the Holocaust. Their ultimate aim is to cause humanity to destroy itself so they can feast on our bodies.
  • Horde of Alien Locusts: The Cockroaches.
  • Human Aliens: Al Phee (who's actually a time traveler from Earth) tries to pass himself off as one. The patrons are so distracted by his fast-paced presentation none of them thinks to question it until Josie slaps the cuffs on Al and points out how unlikely such a thing would be.
  • Hurricane of Puns: Punday at Callahan's, where it's a weekly contest.
    Folks who come into the place for the first time on a Tuesday evening have been known to flee screaming into the night, leaving full pitchers of beer behind in their haste to be elsewhere.
  • I Cannot Self-Terminate: Michael Finn is actually a cyborg sent to evaluate how dangerous the Earth is so that an alien race can decide whether or not to invade it. After an evening at Callahan's, he decides he wants to save them, and asks the patrons to destroy him so he can't automatically report in, since he can't destroy himself. They settle for giving him a Mickey Finn (as hinted at by the name he gives), which leaves him in no condition to make his report.
  • Infinite Supplies: Justified, subverted, and ignored at different points throughout the books' run. Justified in the original bar up through "The Mick of Time" because the bar isn't really a bar, it's an outpost for the Time Police of the Callahans' home era. Subverted in the next book when Jake tries to open a new bar, but soon Jake has to admit they won't be able to keep it open for long because it's more a place for his friends to hang out than a business and he actually has to deal with costs of operating without paranormal help (at least until the end of the book). After their "meal ticket" is scared off and the characters all move to Key West and open a new bar, the issues plaguing Jake previously are mostly ignored to keep telling stories in the series.
  • Immune to Bullets: The good guys, for a change. All of the bar's patrons who have been protected by Mickey Finn are immune to gunfire, nukes, and getting wet when it rains.
    • OTOH, the Required Secondary Powers are a bitch. It only neutralizes lethal trauma, so as not to leave one with a case of CIP. That means that if someone attacks to maim, they can do it as long as no single blow is lethal!
    • Likewise, immunity to nukes is limited to the blast forces and radiation. It's still possible to be trapped in debris and just burn. As Noah Gonzalez found when the "immunity to nukes" clause was tested.
  • Inn Between the Worlds: Although the bar itself is perfectly normal, it's called a Probability Nexus by a timecop and its patrons come from all over space and time.
  • Jackass Genie: The cluricaune isn't actually malevolent—just irritating—but deliberately interpreting the line "when I show Ish that" as "I sho' wish that" definitely qualifies as this.
  • Lame Pun Reaction: The winner of the 'Punday Night' contests is often celebrated with everyone fleeing, screaming in mock terror, into the night.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: To wipe out the trauma and humiliation that a Mind-Control Device has caused her entire staff and clientele, Lady Sally takes control of the device and uses it to wipe everyone's memory of the incident. She's hesitant to do so, knowing that Repressed Memories may cause issues for them in the future, but sees no better alternative.
  • Levitating Lotus Position: Jake spies Mike Callahan doing this. It is one of the first indications that there is a lot more to Mike Callahan than meets the eye.
  • Loophole Abuse: In one of the game's sections, the final puzzle involves coming up with a stake to kill an evil vampire. Since you don't have anything like a proper wooden stake, the puzzle comes down to finding an acceptable substitute. The solution is to use the steak bone that fell on the floor earlier in the scene.
  • Love at First Note: For Jake and Zoey, it's love at first jam session.
  • Lovable Rogue: In Callahan's Lady, this is how The Professor sees himself, conning only marks who deserve it. The trouble is, his standards have slipped over time, to the point where he bamboozles people simply because they annoy him or seem stupid. Eventually he takes a shot at a particularly annoying, stupid thug by the name of Anthony "Tony Donuts" Donnazio. Turns out the guy is Too Dumb to Fool, and it ultimately takes a Deus ex Machina on Lady Sally's part to save his life. This leads him to hang up the con game and go to work for her instead, deciding it's more honest and less hazardous.
  • Meaningful Name: Many characters' names contain punning hints to their roles in the story.
  • Mind-Control Device: A buxom scientist who's tired of being taken for a Brainless Beauty creates one of these and wreaks havoc on Lady Sally's until Maureen can figure out how to turn the tables.
  • A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Read: Invoked with great force in the first story featuring telepathy, but averted with every subsequent use - primarily due to it being practiced by True Companions who've shared all their most intimate secrets over several metric $#!+loads of booze. That's right. Beer can turn The Power of Friendship into telepathic communion.
    • Played straight in the game. Voyatrazine lets you read minds, but you can't stop, and some people will go insane from the constant barrage of thoughts.
  • Minion with an F in Evil: In the game, Jake has to join a criminal organization to get what he's after. He's so bad at it, though, that the guy he hassles for not paying protection money has to talk him through administering a beating. Even then he can't manage anything worse than third grade bullying techniques.
  • Mirror Chemistry: One story has a "Mirror Earth" with right-handed proteins in the place of our left-handed ones. The protagonists eventually discover that this inverts the perceived quality of liquor: our swill is their Wonderbooze and vice versa.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Quite a few guests and even regulars at the bar are homages to various science fiction writers: Al Phee is Alfred Bester, Josie Bauer is implied to the daughter of Philip José Farmer, Gentleman John Killian is outright stated to be John Brunner, etc.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: Pyotr the vampire is the bar's designated driver. For his services, the patrons donate him some of their blood each night. Also, Sasha from the game, who demonstrates that it's a traditional greeting among his people to offer your wrist for a small sampling of blood.
  • Pals with Jesus: By the end of the PC game, the being who's effectively God becomes a regular at the bar.
  • Paper Tiger: The ultimate fate of Tony Donuts after Lady Sally messes with his brain. He still looks tough, but he no longer has the ability to back it up. Since he's about to be arrested, it's noted that this makes him a perfect target for Prison Rape.
  • Patchwork Story: Around half the books are collections of previously-published stories.
  • Paying in Coins: In "The Callahan Touch", the third of three wishes granted by a magical clurichaun is that he legitimately pay for the enormous amount of alcohol he consumed. So he pays in gold coins- LOTS of gold coins, as he had nearly cleaned out every last drop in the bar.
    • This kind of makes him a "Jerk with a Heart of Gold Genie", as Jake's new bar was operating in the red (Jake knew he could only keep the bar open for a while, but didn't have it in him to tell all his friends that with Callahan gone their favorite hangout was no longer viable). Having an alcohol-proof alcoholic with Undisclosed Funds guzzling hundreds(yes, hundreds - he drains every keg in the bar before anyone realizes he's there) of liters of booze every day makes the place the single most profitable bar in existence.
  • Playing with Puppets: A villain in Callahan's Lady uses a Mind-Control Device to make people do disgusting and embarrassing things for her own amusement.
  • Private Detective: Joe Quigley, the protagonist of Lady Slings the Booze, who is hired by an unnamed Ed Koch to investigate a series of mysterious occurrences at Lady Sally's.
  • Pungeon Master: Nearly all the regulars, but Doc Webster especially.
  • Punny Name: Long-drink. "He's a long drink of water. When he sits he looks like he's standing, and when he stands he looks like three other guys."
  • Rapid-Fire Comedy: The game.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Rachel in "A Voice Is Heard In Ramah". No explanation is offered; she just is.
  • Real Person Cameo: Gentleman John Kilian is John Brunner. Al Phee is based on Alfred Bester. The Callahan Touch has named cameos by, among others, Steve Jackson and Jordin and Mary Kay Kare.
  • Rip Van Winkle: "The Time Traveler" is a variant on this - the protagonist hasn't been sleeping, but he is imprisoned by a dictatorship in the early Sixties and not allowed any contact with the outside world. When he's released in the early Seventies, the culture shock between the era of JFK and the era of Vietnam/ Watergate makes him contemplate suicide.
  • Running Gag: The Lady Sally's stories often note a Jewish-looking guy with a carpenter's belt in the background ... sometimes on a crutch, sometimes on a pogo stick, etc.
  • That Satisfying "Crunch!": At Callahan's, making a toast and pitching your glass into the fireplace can be one of the most cathartic actions you'll ever undertake.
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: The Meddler in "The Law of Conservation of Pain". He's trying to help a singer who's popular in his time, but her lyrics are all sad because of the psychological damage she suffered getting maimed in a police raid in the bordello where she was working on the night when the Meddler comes back.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Several instances in the game call the player out on having delusions of being Plastic Man if they try to do something like open a door at the other end of a hall without going down the hall first, or trying to squeeze underneath a door.
    • Ralph von Wau Wau is a Canon Immigrant originally created by Philip José Farmer—and Josie Bauer is apparently his (Farmer's) daughter.
      • According to the GURPS book she actually isn't, but for some reason it amuses her to pretend she is.
    • 'Pyotir's Story' takes the character and history of Domingo Montoya from The Princess Bride outright, adapting him to be a guitar maker instead of a swordsmith.
    • Reggie from Lady Slings The Booze is actually Reginald Jeeves.
  • Sibling Fusion: The MacDonald brothers end up doing a mental version of this in their debut story Two Heads are Better than One, they're essentially one personality in two separate bodies but they didn't start that way. Interestingly they're just telepathic brothers, not twins.
  • Single-Minded Twins: Arethusa, in Lady Slings the Booze and some of the later books. She notes that she was raised by religious extremists who somehow didn't believe in twins, and so her Twin Telepathy meant that she eventually just wound up being herself, with both bodies. (She makes a left-hand, right-hand comparison there.) The last time she remembered being two people was when she was around six.
  • Slipping a Mickey: The way things are resolved in The Guy with the Eyes.
    • In the game, you have to sedate Al Phee with a concoction made from either pure morphine or the best chocolate in existence, because his out-of-control mindreading is driving him insane.
  • The Slow Path: Tom Hauptman is referred to as a time traveler since he missed ten years while imprisoned and now has culture shock.
  • The Smurfette Principle: In "A Voice Is Heard In Ramah," Rachel is the only woman who has ever come to Callahan's, and much is made of the fact. Soon averted, however; by the time of "Fivesight," a few years later, female patrons are unremarkable.
  • Stable Time Loop: The true purpose of the Callahans' presence in New York from 1945-1985; Mike and his family and (it's hinted) other agents are making sure that certain catastrophic events that by all rights should have happened, but didn't, on the timeline to their far-future Utopia stay not-having-happened.
  • Stranded Invader: In the opening story "The Guy With the Eyes", the titular "guy" is an undercover alien spy scouting out Earth to see if it is suitable for an alien invasion. However, after ending up in the titular Callahan's Saloon he has a change of heart, reveals himself and asks the patrons to kill him because that would be the only way the telepathic transmitter in his head can be stopped from sending up the his report that Earth is indeed ready to conquer. However, when he reveals his name to be "Mickey Finn" Callahan gets the clue and just slips him a drink laced with knockout drops so the alien is knocked out and unable to send his message. His Alien Overlords now assuming he has been captured and killed, Mickey Finn is now "free". He becomes a regular at Callahan's and in at least one more story prevents another alien race from taking over Earth. Eventually he marries Callahan's daughter Mary.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: How Tom Hauptman feels after ten years in prison with no contact with the outside world in "The Time Traveller".
  • Talking Animal: Ralph Von Vau Vau is a genius mutant German Shepherd who works in talk radio.
  • A Tankard of Moose Urine: In the story "Mirror/rorriM, Off the Wall", universe-hopper Robert Trebor offers to trade five quarts of a horrible liquor called "King Kong" from his universe for five quarts of the worst whiskey that this universe produces, a legendarily bad hooch called "Tiger Breath" that "tastes like rotten celery smells." Callahan keeps a half-keg of it around to unclog the toilets. Mirror Chemistry makes each one taste like Wonderbooze to someone from the other universe; when Callahan tastes some of the mirror-universe King Kong, he compares it to "the Four-Eye Monongahela," one of the best whiskeys in existence.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: In the first Callahan story, the regulars flatly refuse to kill Mickey Finn even though a) he's asking them to and b) he's going to destroy the Earth if they don't. (Eventually they come up with a third option, but if they hadn't...) Later stories ease up on this.
  • Time and Relative Dimensions in Space: In Callahan's Con, a distraught Zoey uses a time machine to travel into the future and make sure her daughter is all right. Thing is, this time machine apparently makes you account for where Earth will be in its orbit around the sun, and neglecting to do this, she ends up drifting in space.
    • That book says there are three kinds of time travel. One (mentioned above), the earliest invented, doesn't adjust for the Earth's movement. The other types do: the second (used by the Time Police) still requires machinery; the third and most advanced (called 'Transiting') uses no detectable apparatus. Very few people can do it: only the Callahans, Nikola Tesla, and in later books, Jake and Zoey's super-mega-genius daughter Erin.
  • Time Police: Josie Bauer.
  • The Unpronounceable: Mickey Finn's real name apparently sounds like "Txffu Mpwfs."
    • Somewhat subverted in that Mary Callahan can pronounce his name perfectly.
    • There's a character in the later books whom they call "Double Bill" as his name is William Williams. Erin calls him "BBiillll" which is a feat only she can accomplish without stuttering.
  • Too Dumb to Fool: The thug Tony Donuts in "Callahan's Lady" is pure muscle, including his brain. Unfortunately, this means he blows right through the sophisticated con games of Maureen and the Professor, since he's too stupid to do the rational things most expect of a human being capable of lifting a toilet seat before using it.
    1. They go back to the Professor's place to grab some tools for a con, believing no-one would expect that a man on the run would return to his home? He's there waiting for him because he's got nothing better to do with his time.
    2. They watch for him tailing their cab? He just went to that particular cab company and hurt people until they told him where the cab went.
    3. They try to give him real money in lieu of his fifty grand in forged $10 bills? He discovers it instantly because all his forged bills have the same serial number — when he decided to start counterfeiting, he simply beat people up until they named the best counterfeiter they knew of, then killed the counterfeiter and took his equipment. He couldn't figure out how to randomly number the bills, but since he never planned to spend more than one bill at a time(this took place in The '70s, when the dollar was five times more valuable than in The New '10s), he didn't really care.
  • Unconventional Food Usage: In "Just Dessert", a practical joker uses beef stew in a rubber hot water bottle to fake throwing up on Callahan's bar. He and his buddies then pull out spoons and scoff down the soup to gross out Mike and his patrons. They get their comeuppance, however, as Doc doses the soup with a powerful emetic while they are eating it.
  • Unproblematic Prostitution: Lady Sally's House is one of the nicest places to work in New York: great salary, nice benefits (including three months paid vacation) and a security staff that's very good at throwing out creeps before they can do too much damage. That said, the place is something of a Weirdness Magnet, so every once in a while, a real threat will find its way through the door and have to be dealt with ... (It is clearly established that Sally's House is extremely unusual in this regard, and that life isn't like that for other prostitutes.)
  • Utopia: The far-future, far-distant planet of Harmony, Mike Callahan's original home. How far away, and how far in the future? Well, the light from Harmony's star hasn't yet reached Earth, and humanity has advanced so far that "[T]hey don't even have sad people."
    Mike Callahan: Well, when I come from, nobody's hungry, nobody's angry.
  • We Didn't Start the Führer: He walks into the bar (under a different name, of course), and becomes "The Guy They Couldn't Help."
  • Weirdness Magnet: It initially appears to be a magnificent but otherwise ordinary bar that just happens to draw alien observers, talking animals, and darts masters who cheat with telekinesis.
  • When All You Have Is a Hammer…: A few times.
    • Mass-telepathy in some of the later works. It's lampshaded in Callahan's Key: Jake says something to the effect of 'it's our only trick, so we might as well try it'.
    • Would-be mobster Tony Donuts and his son, Tony Donuts Jr. has a single-digit IQ and is strong enough to steal construction equipment despite that handicap. His lifestyle consists of constructing Tony-Donuts-sized holes between himself and whatever he wants.