Dan Coffey, Master of Invention, Dec 03 | Creating a Life Outside the Box


Dan keeps his guests entertained. (Photo by Mark Paul Petrick)

On a still, cloudless afternoon last summer, I met Dan Coffey for the first time outside his apartment on a tree-lined street in the heart of Palermo Viejo, one of Buenos Aires’ oldest and most beautiful districts. He ushered me through an impressive marble entryway and up two flights of stairs, leading me into his sunny living room, where a middle-aged Argentine man stood, grinning. Dan wore a pair of navy cargo shorts, and his salted brown hair was combed back. He looked big and tall and white next to his guest, especially as he bent over to examine the watches displayed on his guest’s upturned palms.

“I can buy one of these watches for $75 and sell it for $200!” he said, turning to me as the apartment door shut softly. “It won’t be long before these guys find out about eBay. But if you want to get started, I can tell you which watches to buy.”

Dan was, unofficially, a collector of rare goods and an international businessman, wheeling between the safety of his Chelsea, Iowa, farmhouse and the trendy neighborhoods of Argentina’s capital city on a bi-monthly basis, carting treasure—antique watches and rosary beads of ivory and glass—to sell on eBay. He had come to Buenos Aires after the economic crash of 2001 on a whim. “I read about it in the papers and two weeks later or three weeks later I was there. That was the week the peso went from parity [with the U.S. dollar] to 2 to 1. And over the week I was there it crept up to 2.5 to 1.”

Whimsical beginning or no, selling antiques from Argentina on the Internet was only one of the myriad unorthodox ways with which Dan has supported himself and his family—he is divorced and the father of three sons—for the last 30 odd years. A prime example, and the one for which he’s won the most awards, is his radio persona Dr. Science.

“Dr. Science is like a cartoon of the influences I grew up with—which was Irish Catholic, and dysfunctional,” he says. The program is a mockery of academic superstition, a gallery where silly questions get sillier answers. And it’s funny—funny enough to air on 80 stations across the country, a number that has dwindled from 200, and spur the publication of two books, Dr. Science’s Book of Shocking Domestic Revelations and I Know More Than You Do, as well as a season-long program on Fox TV.

Projects like Dr. Science, though more fruitful in “name recognition than money,” as Dan once told a reporter, have allowed him to avoid a 9 to 5 schedule almost entirely, something he’s pretty keen about. “I don’t think I could do five days in a cubicle,” he told me. “I’d start goofing off, and then go for a walk and never go back.”

Dan insisted on taking me to one of the indoor mercados. He had hunted down dozens of them throughout the city, massive warehouses with endless rows of stables stacked with furniture and crowded with cloudy cases displaying cheap jewelry. For the patient or the determined, of which Dan seemed to be both, the mercados overflowed with treasure. And he had already made a few friends.

One tough-looking, portly fellow greeted Dan and me enthusiastically. Dan disappeared, and he and I got into a debate about the Bush administration (whose policy was, basically, my fault). It was one of those conversations that would never end happily. Though his Spanish wasn’t quite enough to rescue me, I was relieved to see Dan walking back down the aisle toward me, smiling. He had bought a couple of rosaries. And we left.

We hopped on a bus, heading to an auction house downtown so Dan could pick up the lot of seven handguns he had bid on earlier that week. He seemed mystified that he’d done it. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with these things,” he said, unfurling the cloth around the antique pistols he’d just paid for.

I asked him about the pistols when I caught up with him recently. “That place [Argentina] was a den of thieves when it comes to customs,” he said. Only two of the seven pistols ever made it out of the country. Customs problems was one the reasons he told me he has given up on eBay. “I was simulating economic activity,” he said about his profits at the online auction house. An idea to turn his farmhouse into an Iowa writers’ retreat has yet to take hold, either, so Dan is now teaching at four different community colleges in eastern Iowa. “I had to get real,” he said. “I hate getting real.”

As he talked about it, I thought I detected the whisper of despair in his voice, a wounded baritone. Bound by optimism, he was defeated by practicality: Dan had been forced to reinvent himself again, and that was depressing as all hell. He left me another message a week later, clarifying a question I’d had about his family. I wanted to know what kind of scientists his father and brother were.

“My father and brother were chemists,” he said. “My father died 22 years ago. My older brother is still a chemist. Everybody was smart that way except for me. No, not everybody—my two older influences. After me, we were all brain damaged. My sister is married to a German mystic who does soul transformation workshops. My little brother’s a juggler and lives in Australia.”

Dr. Science Answers Questions That Even CNN Can’t Explain

I recently got a CAT scan, and now my computer mouse avoids me. Is there something I can do to earn its trust back?
—Kevin Ophus from Griffles, OR

Dr. Science: Unfortunately, no. When it comes to giving you a second chance, computer mice are worse than any number of ex-wives and girlfriends. Once you’ve shown your true colors, they never really forgive or forget. A mouse will gladly spend its days rolling up and down the gummy pad you’ve provided, helping you simulate work or download pornography, but once you’ve shown yourself unworthy of its trust, it’s “Hit the Road, Jack.”

Tell me, now that you’ve added another notch to your belt, was that CAT scan really worth the loss of a valued computerized pointing device?

I sold my soul last week, and now I’m having regrets. Could I weasel out of the deal by lying that I only meant to sell my “funky latin soul”?
—Sami Aario from Tampere

Dr. Science: Sure you can, but the only one buying that funky explanation will be you. The Man Upstairs, and I’m not referring to Bill Gates, isn’t likely to be fooled by such slapdash excuses. If you had said you were only trying to buy indulgences, then at least there would be some pious historical precedent, but like Esau, you have “sold your birthright for a mess of pottage,” and no matter how hard you cry, you’ll never get it back. On the other hand, maybe being a soulless denizen of Hades is what you really wanted all along. Look at Donald Trump. He seems happy enough.

If you could travel back in time and meet any one person of your choice, how much would it cost?
—D. A. Beckham, Moscow Mills, MO

Dr. Science: I’m glad to see that price is uppermost in your so-called value system. Most people would have wondered who that special person of yesteryear might be, but to you, all that matters is cost. You’ll go far in today’s world. Back before the 19th century, people cared more about quality than price, but then the concept of “branding” came about, and the advertising industry, like a giant parasite, began to spend billions of our dollars to create the illusion of difference between essentially identical items. Your question lets us know that you have learned your consumer lessons well. It doesn’t matter who you meet back then, because people are all pretty much the same; what matters is how much it costs to get there. See you at the top!

Why is the coziness of my bed inversely proportional to the amount of time left waking up until I (really, really) have to get up?
—Yvonne Marugg from Wettingen, VT

Dr. Science: After years of absorbing your effluvia, your bed is by now a living organism with feelings of its own. To keep its sleeping companion in between the sheets as long as possible, it exudes coziness rays, and this radiation gets stronger the closer it comes to the time when you must wake up. Just as you have an internal clock, so does your bed know deep in its sub-mattress exactly when that alarm will ring. And it dreads that moment even more than you do.

At least you have a life. The poor bed just lies there, waiting for you to fall into it, about 16 hours later.