ALL THE PRESIDENT-WANNABE'S MEN: The public-relations variation of the light-bulb joke goes this way: "How many PR people does it take to screw in a light bulb?" "OK, how many?" "Um ... I'll have to get back to you on that." We were reminded of that sleazy evasiveness common to the PR profession when we recently called the office of failed presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft to follow up on a snippy little item that ran in The Hill, an "inside the Beltway" weekly newspaper in Washington, D.C. The item reported that "no fewer than five Ashcroft staffers have jobs whose purpose is to get their boss ink and his face on the tube." We thought five PR flacks was a bit much, so we called Ashcroft's office to ask whether The Hill had it right. After being bounced around a couple of times, we were told to call Steve Hilton, the senator's communications director, who works out of the district office in Springfield, Mo. No luck there, either. Finally we got one David James, assistant press secretary, on the phone from Washington. So we asked our questions: Are there really five people doing PR? Who are they? Names? Salaries? James curtly told us to fax written questions. Fine. Fifteen minutes later, the fax was sent. Two days later, we got a fax back saying there are only 3.5 positions dealing with the press. No names, no salaries. We called James again: Could we please have the names? Here are the 3.5 staffers: Hilton; James; Greg Harris, deputy communications director; and Matt Morrow, communications assistant (he's the half-time PR guy). Now, could we please have their annual salaries? James got huffy. They're "a matter of public record," he said. "We do not make it a practice" to give out salaries, he said. What's the story? he asked. Well, we didn't really have a story, but perhaps now we have one, we said. Three-and-a-half guys in Ashcroft's office are being paid to answer questions from the press, and two weeks of phone calls and faxes still can't get us an answer on their salaries. Now that's a story. Next week. (SA)PAPER, PLASTIC OR CHAPTER 7? Maybe the dumbest remark -- although the competition for that honor is, as always, fierce -- uttered during the recent bankruptcy of the 17 National supermarkets was overheard by Nick Torpea, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 655. Torpea represents the 758 members of Local 655 who are among the close to 1,000 people who lost their jobs when the National stores couldn't make a go of it. The "new" National was a byproduct of the Schnucks buyout of National in 1995, when federal regulators forced Schnucks to sell off some of the stores they had bought.

Torpea was eating at a restaurant last week when he heard a group of women at a nearby table discussing how crowded the bankrupt stores were as they held their "fire sale" markdowns on groceries. "One woman said, 'I don't know why they didn't do that all the time, with the 25 percent off. They'd have done a lot of business,'" says Torpea. "I wanted to say, 'Ma'am, you can't make any money doing that.'"

Apparently the National stores couldn't make money the conventional way, either, so now all 17 stores will close. Four of the stores are in the city, five in inner-ring suburbs, one in Illinois and the rest in outer areas. Most are smaller stores in older neighborhoods, which doesn't bode well for that concept or those neighborhoods.

Torpea was surprised that two stores that don't fit that mold -- the one in Arnold and the one at Clayton and Baxter roads -- didn't fare better. "They're not bad-looking stores -- nice parking lots," says Torpea. "I just thought they would do better than they did."

Had Schnucks been allowed an unfettered buyout of National in '95, it would have ended up with 100 stores. The Federal Trade Commission, at the urging of Attorney General Jay Nixon's office, forced Schnucks to find a buyer for 24 of the markets. "Our goal was to have choice for consumers by requiring a divestiture of stores," says Mary Still, a spokeswoman for Nixon. "By putting together a package of enough stores for someone to buy, it was hoped we would have a competitive situation there. There's limits to what you can do."

Critics of the deal say Schnucks dumped stores it didn't want. The fact that only six or seven of the stores -- in South County, St. Peters and near Lafayette Square -- are rumored to eventually reopen under different ownership shows that the other 15 or so weren't desirable when Schnucks cut them loose in '95. "The new operators didn't come out with the best locations, in terms of size and viability," says one worker. "None of the three operators in the community -- Schnucks, Dierbergs or Shop 'N Save -- have expressed any interest at all in the stores now. What does that tell you? Coincidentally, Schnucks still holds 13 of the 17 leases, so their interest will be in getting them filled in any way, shape or form."

Part of the problem is the trend toward megastores: Most of the stores siphoned off weren't suited for that concept. Even if a few stores reopen under new owners, Schnucks and Dierbergs will be the beneficiaries of this bankruptcy.

"It represented a little more competition, a different-type store; I enjoyed the smaller-store concept. We're kind of losing that," says Torpea. "If you had a store down the street that was a National that was doing $100,000 a week, that business has to go somewhere. They still got to buy groceries. So the others' business will go up. I just hate that those jobs are lost."

It's estimated that at least half and maybe as many as two-thirds of the 1,000 or so who lost their jobs will land some type of employment in the other supermarkets, but the available shifts and hours may require major adjustments.

As for consumers, they'll at least have to walk or drive farther to fewer stores to buy their vittles. Fewer choices could, ultimately and subtly, lead to higher prices and more careless service. In the end, the consumers will have to live with their choices -- if they had shopped more at the smaller, closer stores earlier, they wouldn't be forced to drive to the larger, more distant supermarkets.

For Torpea, the crowds at the going, going, gone sales at National made him think: "I thought, where the hell were you people when we needed you in there to make a go of it?"

CITY JAIL'S ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT: Almost 25 years ago the federales told the city it had too many prisoners in its jail, and it had to ship its prisoners elsewhere, to other jails throughout the state. That, through the years, has cost the city mucho dinero, millions even. So the city has talked, and talked, about a new jail. The most recent delay had to do with saving the Court Square Building, with Mayor Clarence Harmon and Sam "Mr. Coffee" Glazer rasslin' over how much parking the city promised Glazer for his restaurant. City Treasurer Larry Williams was, as is his habit, the solution to that stalemate. But now, even when the old Board of Elections Commissioners Building on Tucker Boulevard between Clark and Walnut streets has been demolished and construction seems imminent, there's yet another obstacle.

The wrecking crew (yes, it's Spirtas) has found lead in the ground, and that poses the possibility of abatement delays. The jail was projected to open in the fall of 2001, and $76 million in bonds have been issued to pay for it. Spirtas was paid $145,000 to demolish the building. Mayoral spokesman John Boul assures us that time was built into the schedule for such unforeseen delays (weeks? months?) and that the cost of cleanup (in the six-figure range) was factored into the overall cost under the unforeseen-environmental-consideration category. Still, that doesn't deny that if the unexpected lead hadn't been found, the jail might have come in earlier than scheduled and at less cost. But, then, it's the city jail, and who would have expected that?

FLOTSAM AND JETSAM: Over the weekend the Prairie Home Companion's
annual joke show was aired on KWMU (90.7 FM). Here's one from the St. Peter genre, told by Garrison Keillor: "So Bill Gates died and went to purgatory, and St. Peter said to him: 'Bill, you've done some bad things, you've done some good things. I'm going to let you decide where to go.' So Bill Gates took a look at hell, and it was beautiful -- a big beach, thousands of beautiful women running around -- and he looked at heaven and it was up in the clouds, and it had angels drifting around, playing harps and singing. It was nice, but he thought hell looked better, so he went down to hell. A week later St. Peter came down to hell, and there was Bill in chains, being burned and tortured by demons. 'This is awful, St. Peter; this is not what I expected,' Bill said. 'What happened to the beaches and the beautiful women?' St. Peter: 'Oh, that was the screen saver.'" ... This week's best/worst headline on a supermarket tabloid goes to the Globe: "PANTIES PROVE MOM DID IT!" Just to save you the $1.49, before tax, you'd spend to read this "exclusive," it boils down to this: When JonBenet Ramsey's body was found, she had on the wrong size panties (12-14) instead of the usual size (4-6). The theory, sources say, is that Mom got mad after JonBenet wet the bed, an argument ensued during which the girl was hit on the head, and the panicked mom changed the dead child's clothes. This argues against an intruder's having done the foul deed, because he wouldn't have known where to find the new panties, which the mom had bought for a niece. Expect an indictment of the mom, sometime before the next millennium. Oh, and the other article, about Michael Jordan fornicating with Vanessa Williams? Michael's sister says it never happened.

Contributors: Safir Ahmed, D.J. Wilson