Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On the Pathway between Wise Guy and Smart Ass

Somewhere between your time as a student in the forth grade, you were yanked out of what seemed the comforts of life in Los Angeles.  Your destination was the other side of the continent, where a grandmother you'd never seen before awaited, and several small incidents were burned into your awareness.

One of these "incidents" was the Arizona desert, to which you still feel drawn back to.  Another was a drinking fountain in Washington, D.C., which, while you were taking water from it, caused you to be vigorously yanked by your hair, then told you were not meant to drink water from that fountain because it would be unseemly for you to do so, further because you would then be drinking water "one of them" might wish, only to be denied access because you, a white person, would be drinking and thus "one of them" who might wish to drink water, would have to wait until you finished drinking.  

At the time, you were used to the kinds of frantic recess activity only a fourth grade boy could appreciate, which meant you were used to spending a good deal of time at a drinking fountain, taking in huge quantities of water.  You could understand the impact this might have on anyone awaiting their turn at the faucet, but you could not for the life of you understand why "one of them" would be an issue.

The grandmother you met for the first time did any number of things you'd never experienced before.  She grilled hot dogs in a cast iron skillet.  She made the fluffiest, most delicious apple strudel you have ever tasted.  She warmed sauerkraut, using a tiny dab of chicken fat.  She sprinkled caraway seeds into the warm sauerkraut.  She sometimes made sauerkraut out of purple cabbage.  At this same time, you were taken to a restaurant on Hester Street in the Lower East Side, where you often ate as many as four hot dogs, all strewn with sauerkraut and a piquant, thick mustard.

Before you were able to return to Los Angeles, you learned to enjoy then crave little neck clams.  The faculty of a grammar school in Providence, Rhode Island, were impressed with the things you said about The Iliad and The Odyssey and how naive you supposed the Pilgrims to have been for allowing themselves nearly to starve to death in spite of being so close to incredible supplies of shell fish.  They were willing to overlook your relative innocence in long division, advancing you well beyond your school grade of entry.

Before you returned to Los Angeles, you had a route delivering The Miami Herald to neighborhood in Miami Beach where a significant obstacle to your ability to deliver papers were occasional signs informing all who saw them that dogs, Negroes, and persons of your race were not welcomed on the premises.

In fairness, you also learned how to secure coconuts from trees, how to remove the husks and thus be able to eat the meat of the coconut if you'd lost your lunch money lagging or matching pennies.  You also discovered, thanks to a captain in the U.S. Army named Al Anastasio, who also happened to be a dentist, a remarkable delicacy called an anchovy pizza pie.

The range of things you discovered while away from Los Angeles prepared you and shaped you for something that has remained with you, becoming a useful tool and awareness set, more valuable that what at the time you considered to be the discovery of anchovy pizza.

You'd heard the words metaphor and simile and allegory before, along with an occasional hyperbole.  You were prepared for them all when you returned, jumping on the terms, relishing them, sprinkling them into your conversation.  

Recalling your initiation to these words has brought memories of your then writing style back to you.  "Today, our entire class boarded a yellow school bus.  When we settled down, Mrs, Knowlton told us we were going to a dairy that was way out on La Cienega toward Culver City.  It was a dairy named for a woman who owned many acres of land in Malibu.  Her name was Rhoda and she got the name of the dairy by spelling her name backwards."

You can close your eyes and recall many such examples.  At the time, you had no way of making the comparison that learning such words and their meanings was as momentous to you as, in a matter of scant years, puberty would come to mean to you.

How grand it was to go from straightforward declarative sentences, however sincere and direct, to implications, double entendres, and your most favored of all narrative devices, the pun.

There was no telling where the next excitement, the next literary equivalent of anchovy pizza would come from.  Let me kill you, sweetheart.  A hearse of another killer.  Little hearse on the prairie.  A man for all Susans. And the myriad puns on the names of fish:  Hard of herring...change your tuna...I think I've got a haddock...

By the time you'd learned to cope with a synecdoche, you were well on your way to being what your father on occasion referred to as a wise guy.  But then you discovered the pleonasm,and your position as a smart ass was assured. 

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