Friday, November 7, 2014

"No, no... actually, it never struck me before..."

Margaret Dumont
    Much humor involves embarrassment; we laugh instead of cringing with shame, on our own behalf or for the sake of others. The Marx Brothers' crazy hijinks wouldn’t be nearly as effective performed by themselves in a locked room as they were in the middle of an elegant dinner party hosted by a horrified Margaret Dumont, struggling to maintain her dignity and a sense of order. Borat would have just been a disturbed Eastern European oaf, but played against a backdrop of earnest American politeness, he was hysterical.
     Of course, when something embarrassing happens to you, at the moment it is occurring and, often, for years afterward, that sense of fun can be elusive.
     Look at this bunny statue. It’s positioned by a tree in the front yard of a house on my block. I see it almost every day, walking the dog in that direction, and I think of ... well, I’m getting ahead of myself.
     Look closely at the photo. Note the position of the rabbit's paws The juxtaposition of the tree. What does that bunny look like he's doing?  Any thoughts? Perhaps does he look like someone relieving himself in an alley in Wrigleyville, right? Disposing of the last few innings worth of Old Style while glancing over his shoulder to check that the coast is clear, yes?
   Hold that thought a moment.
   I couldn’t tell you the bunny owners' name. A pair of landscapers. I wouldn’t recognize on sight. That happens with surprising frequency in suburbia. People keep to themselves. I've met this couple only once, that I recall, but it was memorable. Being introduced, looking for a topic of conversation, I  said: “I really admire the bunny statue in your front yard.”
     They looked at me blankly, and expression I took to mean: "Admire?"
     “I mean, it’s very wry, peeing against the tree like that. Wherever did you find it?"
     “I beg your pardon?” the wife said, confused.
      “Well, it’s a peeing bunny, right?” I said, trying to maintain my bright demeanor, but the smile slowly dying on my face. “It’s urinating against your tree.”
     They drew back, slightly.
     Gosh, the husband said, or words to that effect, exchanging embarrassed, where-did-this-idiot-come-from glances with his wife, “we never thought of it like that.”

     "No, no," the wife agreed, obviously horrified. "Not at all..."
     I’ve gone over the conversation a dozen times, and I really wish I could suspect they were dryly teasing me—I mean, look at the thing. How could you not view it that way? How could somebody not notice? But I don’t think they were pulling my leg. They were sincerely baffled.
     That’s why people are so often politely silent, and reluctantly make any kind of observation about anyone else. It's only smart. Because what seems obvious to you, might not be obvious to them. We are a world that slides along on the lubrication of self-deceit.
     To cite another example. I was at Harry Heftman’s final birthday party a few years back. Harry was, you might recall, the much-loved owner of the hot dog stand at the corner of
Harry Heftman, left
Randolph and Franklin whom I often wrote about. As I mingled, a column lede formed in my mind. The opening sentence would be: “Harry Heftman is looking old. Which is only fitting, because Harry Hefman is old.”
     That sounded good. But I know enough about people that I didn’t want to cause any distress to my friend Harry. So I cornered his daughter and asked, “Do you think Harry would mind if I called him 'old' in the paper?” I assumed she'd assure me that I should go ahead.
     Her face fell—she was genuinely horrified. “Oh no, you can't, “ she replied. “Harry would hate that.”
     Harry Heftman was 103 years old. I wrote nothing about his birthday party.

     It says something about vanity, about illusions, about the nature of our society, that a man turning 103 cannot be described as "old," just as I know I’d get in trouble if I called a 300 pound woman “fat.” The obvious is not always obvious, particularly to the person with the closest view.
     To their credit, the couple did not remove the bunny after I cast aspersions on its pose. I'd have hated that. My theory is that it was a comic bunny that they bought sincerely, missing the implications of its posture. Or heck, maybe it's an innocent bunny, and I've simply pissed against too many walls in my day and it's clouded my judgment.
     But it is a reminder that you should always be careful when pointing out something that you assume your listener is vastly familiar with. They may not be.
     It's funny to observe. The definitive example of this is found in Monty’s Python’s classic “Travel Agent Sketch” Eric Idle plays a would-be holiday traveller introduces himself as “Mr. Smoke-Too-Much.”
     “Well, you better cut down a bit then,” Michael Palin's travel agent ripostes.
      “What?” Idle says, taken aback.
      “You’d better cut down a bit then.”
      “Oh I see," he says, realization dawning. "Cut down a bit ... for Smoke-Too-Much."
       “Yes,  Ha ha. I expect you get people making jokes about your name all the time.”
       “No, no" the traveler says aghast, "actually, it never struck me before.”
       An exaggeration, of course, for comic effect. But only a little. That's how people actually are in real life. And why it's funny. When it happens to someone else.


  1. Speaking of Old Style: in my neighborhood growing up, we said that the Old Style label had a "pissing priest" on it. A frog, too.

  2. Years ago, my daughter and I were in an antique store and came across THE Santa. He was made to sit on a mantle. It was the look on his face that did us in. He had a pipe, as he does, apparently sucking on that for all it was worth. One eye squinted up, with a "hold my breath" face. So now, stoner Santa sits on the mantle waiting for someone to make a polite comment, as we giggle like lunatics.


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