The great hall of Denver's Central Public Library had all the edgy tension of a drug stakeout shortly before noon today. Dozens of suspicious characters lurked by book displays or wandered about with an unconvincing air of casualness, eyeing each other balefully. You could feel the nervous energy building, building, all these undercover operatives steeling themselves to pounce at a moment's notice — and offer each other a soothing Ricola cough drop.
Amazing what a simple promotional gimmick (and the promise of an elusive cash prize) can do. For days radio ads had hinted that the Ricola Mystery Cougher was coming to downtown Denver…to some place with a lot of books…be on time, or you'd be "overdue"…The clues were hard to miss, the game simple. Be the first one to offer the Cougher a Ricola, and you could win from $500 to a million bucks.
Now, if you're going to stage a contest that depends on picking out someone who's expelling mucous, it's probably not too smart to do it at the DPL, where citizens of all strata come for enlightenment and Internet access. The phlegmy, the rheumatic, the congested, the asthmatic, the perpetually hoarse – they're all well-represented, too. But the Ricola hunters did their best, bracing just about anyone who even harrumphed. One woman trying to clear her throat was abruptly swarmed by strangers shaking little bags of Echinacea-laced honey drops at her. Bemused librarians, banned from the contest themselves (city employees can't offer anybody any medicinal substance, for fear of lawsuits), did their best to carry on.
As the minutes dragged on, the operatives began to lower their guard. Some even talked to each other.
"It will be a chain of coughs," one predicted. "Something you can't ignore."
"How do you know it won't be just one explosive cough?" demanded another.
"I was thinking I might wear lederhosen," said a third. "Just so they could see me."
At half-past eleven, word trickled down that the Mystery Cougher might not even enter the building. One interpretation of the radio clues had it that the Big Retch would occur in the plaza between the library and the Denver Art Museum. The area soon filled up with dozens of cougher stalkers. And when the Mystery Cougher finally revealed himself -- a tall, white-bearded fellow with a hammy cough --— he was exposed at once.
A dispute ensued as to which of two women had got the drop on him first, but Ricola has its own friendly referee, who witnessed the entire play and ruled on the spot. The winner got to pick from a bag of envelopes, revealing a prize of…(drum roll)…five hundred dollars.
Thanks for playing, Denver. -- Alan Prendergast