Who wants to be a millionaire when you can have your name in the New Yorker?
Vince Banes, a 49-year-old Silver Spring rocket scientist, seemed perfectly happy Wednesday to snare first prize in the magazine's caption contest -- even if it came with a gag gift, not cash and a handshake with Regis.
When the annual Cartoon Issue of the New Yorker arrived in November, Banes flipped through, avidly scanning the captions, until he came to the Back Page, where one final cartoon begged for a caption. Inspiration struck instantly as Banes looked at the rendering of a man approaching a house and laboring under a huge globe, while a surly little girl on the porch yelled to someone inside.
The online auctioneer eBay had been on Banes' mind a lot lately. He was frustrated after getting outbid more than once on parts for his vintage Corvette. He rushed to his computer and e-mailed his entry: "Mom, Dad's been on eBay again!"
It was a good thing Banes didn't dally. Of the contest's more than 5,000 entrants, about six dozen had the same or nearly identical idea. Banes' own struggles with the mighty online auction had tapped into the national Zeitgeist, which is why the caption was so fitting and funny and in the spirit of New Yorker's stable of witty, socially aware cartoonists.
"The caption was not necessarily cleverer, more ingenious, or more imaginative than every single one of the others, but in some hard-to-define way it hit closest to the bull's eye," the judges concluded in the Feb. 7 issue announcing the winner and several honorable mentions.
After being declared the winner, Banes exchanged e-mails with New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. The subject? Banes' job in the guidance and navigation group of Orbital Sciences, a contractor with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. "We aim things," he says dryly.
"He e-mailed us saying 'and by the way, I am a rocket scientist,' " recalls Mankoff. "I had to stop the presses. It was too good to pass up."
Banes responded with a little rocket scientist humor: a computer-generated milk carton showing a picture of the Mars lander and posing the question, "Have you seen me?"
In the past, Banes, the father of a 17-year-old daughter and 33-year-old stepson, has won a small raffle here and there, but "nothing worldwide like this." He's always loved cartoons and confesses that is his prime reason for subscribing to the New Yorker. He doesn't know too many others who regularly read the magazine, but his wife Hildegard reported that her colleagues at Austrian Radio and Television in Washington had a good chuckle over his win.
About that gag gift: On Monday, a snow day, daughter Natalie shouted, "Dad, you've got this box outside!" (The cartoon drawing of the shouting girl comes to mind.) The FedEx-delivered package must have been "four by four by four feet, and not very heavy and [inside] it said, 'You win!' " Banes says.
He opened the package, removed the bubble wrap. Nestled within was an inflated, "made in China" beach ball globe. "We better not see this on eBay," the judges warned in their congratulatory message to Banes.
He intends to keep the globe. But he's not sure how to get rid of the box. At least those clever New Yorker staffers followed up Tuesday with another, more practical award: a published collection of classic cartoons.