Joke’s on Me

I make up jokes and tell them to dead people, immigrant Galicians who once lived in the Western Pennsylvania coal mining town where I spent many formative weekends and summers. Here’s one:

 

Me: What is responsible for the lack of a cohesive Galician culture in America?

Galician Ghosts: We don’t know, what?

Me: Onions and garlic.

 

My audience is made up of Galician-Ukrainian Americans with bad breath—not to be confused with Galician-Spanish Americans with bad breath—but I can’t help performing. Even a ghost sometimes needs levity. Here’s a joke that my dead grandfathers might have enjoyed:

 

Me: Why were Galician immigrants referred to as “Hunkies” or “Bohunks” when they arrived in America.

Ghostly Grandfathers: We don’t know, why?

Me: Because the term “slave” had already been taken.

 

I should clarify. Galicians were and are neither Bohunks, aka Bohemians, nor Hunkies, aka Hungarians. However, when Galicians came to America, other ethnic groups found it easier to toss them into the salad of Slavic immigrants than to recognize them as a separate side dish.

 

What exactly is a Galician? As my father once pointed out, the region of Galicia, once the Kingdom of Galicia-Lodomeria, does show up on a world map. It’s in Eastern Europe: at one time part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, at one time part of Poland, currently part of the Ukraine. My research indicates that the region holds a mixture not only of Poles and Ukrainians but also of Slovaks, Hungarians, Germans, and Jews. Mom and Dad and their parents had no trouble embracing our family’s probable Polish, Ukrainian, and Slovak rootedness, but they maintained a determined dislike for Germans, Hungarians, and Jews.

 

Me: Why do the Galicians hate the Germans?

Mom and Dad: Who doesn’t hate the Germans? It’s a human right.

 

Me: Name the various shells of a Galician nesting doll?

Mom and Dad:

Me: On the surface a former citizen of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, beneath this a Pole, then a Ukrainian, perhaps a Slovak, but ultimately only a loathsome Jew hater.

 

The Galician Americans of Eastern Europe are not to be confused with the Galician Americans of Western Europe.

Other names for the Galician peoples include Carpatho-Rusyns or Ruthenians, but when I’ve mentioned these terms to my relatives, they respond with blank expressions. I fix on Galician American because I would like to be part of an identifiable immigrant culture: much the way other Americans call themselves Germans, Italians, English, Irish, Spanish, or French. Many U.S. citizens enjoy wearing T-shirts that declare allegiance to one of these European nations, and I’ve always wanted to do the same. In college, I had a friend whose multi-generational Italian-American family came from the Tennessee mountains, but he wore his “ITALIA” sweatshirt with pride until it disintegrated.

 

I was always envious of that shirt and the pride it represented. I’d like to claim ownership of a “GALICIA” T-shirt, but I have never found a pre-made one in a store or online. I have never come across a Galician-American appreciation day or social club. In the Monumental City where I now live, our streets are bordered by and centered on monuments and statues honoring famous Irish, Poles, Germans, Lithuanians, and Jews. There are a few pieces of Galician-American art in our municipal art gallery, but no monument honoring a Galician of any kind. It appears that Galicians have never proven themselves notable in any U.S. conflicts, worker strikes, or rock bands. I am unsure as to whether Galician Americans who identify as such could populate the gutter-to-gutter distance of a two-lane road, let alone a block of parade route.

 

Yet in my mother’s Western Pennsylvania hometown, Galician immigrants did exist. This was a company town of five streets running north-south and five streets running east-west. The Galician-Americans occupied about half of the asphalt-shingle houses on one street. The town also had streets predominantly dedicated to other ethnic groups: I may be mistaken but it always seemed to me that the highest rung was occupied by Scotch-Irish, next rung by Germans, third rung by Italians, and bottom rungs by assorted Hunkies, which included the Galicians. All these immigrant groups came to town at the turn of the 20th century, took jobs in the company coal mine, and earned their wages in “scrip,” not U.S. dollars. I have a joke that my ghostly Galician elders sometimes enjoy:

 

Me: Why did so many Galician immigrants settle in the coal mining regions of Western Pennsylvania?

Ghostly Elders: Why?

Me: Because only there could they enjoy the same poverty, isolation, and suffering they’d experienced in the old country.

 

Unlike Americans of Irish, Italian, or other European extraction, I have noticed one distinction about the Galician Americans that I grew up around. They never seemed much concerned about proclaiming an ethnic identity. They were more fixated on their religion. Life in our coal mining town revolved primarily around the Greek Catholic church and the Greek Catholic mass, a mass celebrated in a language called Church Slavonic. I always found this curious. What did Greece have to do with a people from Slavic Europe?

 

Church interior where I breathed the strongest incense of my youth.

In my research, I discovered that the Greek Catholic faith practiced by Slavs traces its origins to the Great Schism of 1054 when the Eastern Byzantine church split from the Roman Catholic, and many Slavs sided with the Popeless east. But east-west Christian history doesn’t end there. In 1596, portions of the Eastern Orthodox church reunited with the Papal tradition, demonstrating fealty to the Pontiff but maintaining their beloved icons and Byzantine traditions. As such, Galicians and other Slavs practicing Greek Catholicism became an amalgam of Eastern and Western Christianity.

 

Church exterior surrounded by fresh air.

I close my eyes and transport myself to the Greek Catholic church that I attended as a boy. Mass is over, and I wait at the front of the church for my parents to exit. Rather than fidget, I corner the usher, Marek Breznik. Marek, blue eyes behind thick lenses and a head of shellacked white hair, wears his trademark plaid suit jacket, a paisley tie. His burgundy pants have perfectly ironed creases running their length, and I believe him to be a man who appreciates humor.

 

Me: Marek, when do you know the Greek Catholic mass is over?

Marek: When?

Me: When you wake up.

 

Marek has one for me—

 

Marek: Did you hear about the incense accident during mass?

Me: No.

Marek: It was thurible.

 

I smile even though I don’t know what a thurible is, and Marek pulls one cuff of his jacket over the cuff of his brilliant yellow shirt. We move to the church basement, a makeshift reception hall. Galician Greek Catholics are always looking for a reason to celebrate and dig into their ethnic cuisine, and I figure this must be one of those occasions. A collection of old women—Bubbas—bring out the halupki, pierogi, and kolachi. The Iron City and Genesee flows, and I lean into Marek to share another joke.

 

Me: What did the WASP say when the first Galician immigrants arrived in America?

Marek: What?

Me: Finally, a European ethnic group that can cook a potato.

 

Another man, Petro Lemko joins us. He has bushy white eyebrows and his rough carpenter’s hands itch to do some knee-slapping.

 

Me: Why do Galicians enjoy decorating “pysanky,” the traditional Easter Egg?

Petro and Marek:

Me: Because making money wouldn’t take as long and might lead to a better life.

 

Marek lowers his voice, his humor transitioning to blue.

 

Marek: What do you call two Galicians on a camping trip?

Petro: What?

Marek: Pigs in a blanket.

 

Because these men are not alive today, I generally tell such jokes to their memories in quiet, meditative moments. But as I am also one who cannot keep my chuckle muffled or my mouth shut, I have, on occasion, spoken some Galician jokes aloud, trying them out on my wife, a woman who can claim unassailable Irish, Norwegian, and French bloodlines.

 

Me: So Honey, how do you move the Polish borders?

Wife: How?

Me: With the Russian army.

Wife: Hmm.

Me: And how do you move the Galician boarders?

Wife: With the Polish army?

Me: No. Ask the Galicians to pay their rent.

 

My wife is about to turn the radio on to A Prairie Home Companion.  

 

Me: Wait! Wait! Why does Sigmund Freud begin his book “Jokes in Relation to the Unconscious” with a Galician joke?

Wife:

Me: Because he couldn’t find a funny Irish one.

 

Nothing illustrates the tedious complexity and beauty of Galician culture like the traditional Easter egg art form, Pysanka.

She might grin, but I doubt she appreciates where I’m coming from. My real test occurs when I share my Galician jokes with my daughters. I waited many years before doing so, but eventually I had to. Not being much of a cook, telling them such jokes was the easiest way I knew to clue them in on their Galician heritage.

 

Me: Girls, if Cinderella were Galician, where would she live?

Daughters: Where?

Me: A Pierogi Palace

 

Me: Girls, what do you call a Galician who catches fire?

Daughters: Dad stop!

Me: A nut roll.

 

My daughters groan. “Dad,” they ask, “why do you tell such awful jokes? There’s no such thing as a pure-blooded race, a pure ethnic group. Admit it. You’re just a mutt, a descendant of multiple Eastern European cultures. We are all mutts. Eastern and Western European mutts: Mom’s Irish, Norwegian, and French; you are some mix of Polish, Ukrainian, and Slovak. Even those nations were just cobbled together out of ancient Celtic tribes.”

 

My girls want me to admit to being a Bohunk or a Hunkie, but I resist. Why is it that so many other Americans can market a cohesive ethnic pride, but my ancestors seem to have been incapable of turning ours to either pride or profit? For instance, why no fast-food Pierogi or Halupki restaurant chains? Moreover, why are my kids so damn argumentative. These U.S. public schools are doing too good a job.

 

I went to the same schools and learned the same things; so fundamentally, I cannot disagree. History is messy. Nations are political constructs where one tribe often proclaims hegemony, forces other tribes to follow along, then rebrands an entire group under a new, preferred title. This reality is more frightening when one considers how the earliest immigrants to the Americas did not leave this practice in Europe. They were the first arrivals, so they took control, engaging in new forms of hegemony and social engineering. Consider African-American slavery. Consider Indigenous-American genocide. Consider Japanese-American internment camps.

 

Thurible and Icon.

I’m aware that when an African American, an Indigenous American, or a Japanese American looks at my kind, they don’t see a Galician American; they don’t even see a Hunkie or Bohunk. They see a member of the white privileged class, and those minorities who grew up during my generation might even see me and say, “Honky.”

 

Still, I would like to draw a distinction. I am part of a desperate people, a people who came to the Americas and lived in poverty, drank too much, pulled each other’s hair like a cast of Chekhov characters, showed themselves frequently to be bitter anti-Semites and frightened segregationists, felt they were born not to happiness but to suffering, and looked for their status and salvation at church.

 

My jokes attempt to trim away some of these rough edges and make my ancestors easier to live with. The jokes may be unwelcome to peoples who have suffered worse. They may be unwelcome to my wife and daughters. They certainly can’t compete with the jokes that Jewish Borscht Belt comedians brought to television and told to my delight when I was growing up. But until I become a ghost, or until I become a cook of traditional Galician cuisine, they are most necessary to me.

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Prescription for Ethics: An Antidote to the Worship of Scientific Learning

empathy-book-coverThe university where I teach states its mission as “foster[ing] intellectual inquiry and critical thinking, preparing graduates who will serve as effective, ethical leaders and engaged citizens.” It’s a tall order, and I have read this statement to myself many times. I have also read it to my third and fourth year students and asked them to tell me whether they believe this mission to be an accurate representation of how the university engages them.

Most students would agree that university professors do spend a good deal of time teaching critical thinking skills. But students also don’t mind telling me that there isn’t much a professor can do to influence their ability to become ethical leaders. “Morals are instilled at an early age,” the students will say, “the university might change you a little, but things are pretty much set by your family or religion.” One student suggested that exposure to a diverse student body and classmates who come from different backgrounds and who share different perspectives on life was enough to help him develop understanding, acceptance, or at least tolerance of others.

Beyond these suggestions for learning ethical leadership, I find that students struggle with open discussion about ethical issues in the classroom. When it comes to presenting such discussions, I’m afraid that many teachers, myself included, as well as students, find there are certain ethical issues they prefer to avoid. It would seem much easier to concentrate on skills learning or teaching the scientific method and leave ethics or morality to the church, synagogue, mosque, and ultimately to the student’s conscience.

But what happens when a teacher separates exposure to ethical standards from scientific learning, concentrating mainly on imparting the scientific method? In my experience and from class observation, this modern concentration on science and technology has resulted in the perception, among many religious fundamentalists or anti-intellectuals, that the university creates a class of Godless “humanists” or “cultural elites” who substitute science for religion. Regardless of how one feels about universities being safe havens for cultural elites, the religious fundamentalist or anti-intellectual does raise an important question: can a set of skills or scientific methods substitute for religion or at least a moral code?

Within the scientific laboratory, this might hold true. Respecting and following a well-established and prescribed set of methods or procedures could be considered a type of morality, and even an artist who spends his or her career perfecting a process that produces valued work could be thought of as a practicing ethicist in some sense. But both scientist and artist find quickly that outside the laboratory or studio, scientific and artistic experimentation is unwelcome. One generally learns science by repeating established scientific experiments in a controlled environment and building on the work of those who laid a foundation. But experimenting in any medium—be it chemistry, physics, or morals—in an uncontrolled environment welcomes only disaster and chaos.

quote-when-you-teach-a-child-something-you-take-away-forever-his-chance-of-discovering-it-jean-piaget-52-61-83When it comes to developing a personal ethics, the university student should not be encouraged to test moral axioms in the real world. A student does not need to plagiarize a paper and be subject to the school’s code of conduct to learn the meaning of “Thou Shalt Not Steal.” Nor does the student need to involve himself in an affair with his best friend’s girl to test the maxim “Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Wife?” And surely no sane professor would recommend that a student murder his roommate to understand the full force of the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

Most would agree that teachers, universities, and civil societies are not interested in allowing or encouraging experimentation at this level. But is standing before a classroom and admonishing students for bad behavior or punishing them by enforcing the university’s Code of Conduct enough to build upon a person’s ethics? Most cognitive psychologists say no, and research in this field suggests that learning from punishment is the lowest form of moral development, leading to avoidance rather than principled behavior based on personal choice. So if punishment is not the way, how does a teacher advance and instill a principled ethics alongside a set of technical skills?

As a teacher of writing and composition, my answer is to expose students to stories and ask questions about the moral issues relevant to those stories. Along with having students learn the mechanics of writing, an English class should involve having students read and listen to stories that can trace the repercussions of questionable decision making. Nonfiction and fiction stories have long served as the reflective waters for real-life ethical failures and corrections. Stories provide a safe place where people can reflect on what happens when social and moral codes break down.

In fact, recent scientific investigations provide an explanation for why reading, listening, watching, and reflecting on stories might be an essential part of developing human empathy and, by extension, ethics. Dr. Paul D. Zak of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies has demonstrated that when people listen to stories, they release more of the hormone oxytocin, a neurochemical especially evident in the early stages of mother-child bonding. And as both adult males and females have been shown to produce this hormone when listening to engaging narratives, what better way to strengthen social bonds in our culture than listen to examples from those who have already made mistakes rather than by having students make their own?

For instance, if English teachers want to target the production of oxytocin, and ethics, in business majors, they might assign students to read a book about pyramid schemes and have those students discover what happens when a business steals from its customers. If English teachers want to target the production of oxytocin in computer science majors, they might have those students read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein to explore the repercussions of creating new forms of artificial life. And more dramatically, if English teachers want to target the production of oxytocin in a class of suspected nihilists, teachers could have those students read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or at least sit through a viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, and find out what happens when nihilistic impulses are given free reign.


Nonfiction and fiction stories have long served as the reflective waters for real-life ethical failures and corrections.


Admittedly, moral lessons, or any lessons for that matter, are learned much better when they are experienced personally and learners gain a visceral connection to the consequences of their actions. But the college teacher can only hope that students have already had some real-life experiences where poor moral decision making has resulted in pangs of conscience. Hopefully, by the college years, many of the worst of those experiences can be put to rest. Building off students’ personal pasts, teachers should encourage their charges to use their imaginations and extrapolate how they might feel about moral failures of greater degree, suggesting that certain behaviors, when practiced in the real world, are clearly more desirable than others.

Outside of learning from past ethical failures, family and religious institutions, or a teacher’s direction, the best teachers of ethics may be libraries, be those book, movie, or music libraries. Such resources are full of moral lessons, not only about stealing, coveting, and killing but lessons about colonialism, sexism, racism, and totalitarianism as well. While teachers have a responsibility to teach marketable skills, they also have a responsibility to expose students to these issues, introducing texts that attempt to tackle modern moral dilemmas head on, or making old texts fresh by reading them as metaphors for modern times.

In doing so, a teacher engages students’ imaginations, forcing them to anticipate the consequences of their actions. The students begin to understand more deeply how even the best intentions can be met with bad results, or how the worst intentions might oddly have fortunate outcomes. Tackling this conundrum in the classroom can take students even further toward developing a set of principles, forcing them to ask, “Is morality a question of my conscious intent, or do I deserve credit for the consequences of my actions when I never considered my actions or their consequences in the first place?”

As a teacher, my hope is that students will entertain such questions in our classroom and find conscionable ways to apply their answers, both during their time at the university and when they move on to begin their lives as professionals.

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Teaching Composition Courses to Non-English Majors: A Multipronged Approach

img_3684As one who teaches English composition to undergraduates who are non-English majors, my first task is to convince the students that being able to write well is important, that being able to persuade others is important, and that the approach to written persuasion is different from that of verbal persuasion. At the beginning of each semester, I present my students with an outline sketch of how written persuasion might be done, the various techniques involved. Most nod, seem to understand. Others look askance, have heard it all before. A few recline in their chairs and fold their arms, signaling that this class will be a breeze.

My second task in the first week is to get to know the students. Since we will be spending time together, I like us both to gain some familiarity and comfort with each another. For one, I attempt to learn their names. Culturally, they are a diverse mix, students that represent a cross section of the globe, every continent but Antarctica, several who know English only as a second language. As I said before, I rarely teach English majors, maybe one or two. Most are interested in the better paying professions: those related to computer science, business, and health care. And many hold down jobs while attending college. By this, I don’t mean part-time jobs; some work two or three part-time jobs; others work full-time jobs while taking full college course loads.

Some of these industrious students are confident in their English skills; most are not. Those who lack confidence in writing have come to understand taking an English class as a necessary evil and have been motivated to avoid tasks that involve writing. A few confess to having had bad experiences with English teachers and composition courses in the past, and these learners wish to move on to more seemingly stable, more quantifiable STEM subjects. To enter STEM professions, they are primarily concerned that their performance in an English course doesn’t do harm to their GPAs. Learning the subject matter that I teach is frequently viewed as secondary to getting a high mark.

My third task, after getting to know the students and hailing the virtues of writing, is to let the class know that despite all the pressures on their time, and despite my apparently easy going manner, that I have expectations for them in class. I have guidelines. These guidelines take various forms but have one sole purpose: to garner respect not only for me but for their fellow classmates. I include these guidelines in my syllabus because I’ve learned that respect for others is not always a premise for some the way I believe it should be. Those who want and even demand respect don’t always give it freely.

“Discipline of others isn't punishment. You discipline to help, to improve, to correct, to prevent, not to punish, humiliate, or retaliate.” UCLA Basketball Couch, John Wooden

“Discipline of others isn’t punishment. You discipline to help, to improve, to correct, to prevent, not to punish, humiliate, or retaliate.” UCLA Basketball Coach, John Wooden

Another reason for these guidelines is to manage the work I face over the course of the semester. As I may have 4 classes of 21 students—84 total—3 days a week for 16 weeks, and because I may assign 8 graded assignments for each class, while allowing for revisions to early papers, each student will not always get the kind of attention he or she deserves. I would like to be, but cannot always be, attentive to student needs, and students can sometimes become difficult to track. If left to their own choices, many of my non-English majors will choose not to come to class, or they will make a habit of showing up late, a few in the last ten minutes. I have guidelines to see that these behaviors are discouraged.

On another front, many students enjoy electronic media and don’t mind using it during class. They’d prefer to put on headphones and escape into their music or thumb-text into their favorite social media site during class discussions, signaling to me that they prefer not to participate in those discussions. I have more strategies to see that this doesn’t happen. And in a different area, students don’t always see the disadvantages of plagiarism. Perhaps in classes where most students have a strong desire to learn their subject matter, plagiarism is not a temptation. But for non-English majors who are required to take composition courses and want to maintain high GPAs, my guidelines of class behavior are designed to eliminate such temptations.

Having set forth my plan, gotten to know the students, and informed them of my guidelines, the work begins. Picking up on my introductory sketch of persuasion, I give more detailed instruction on the essential elements of writing to persuade: knowing your audience, following established writing patterns, arguing a thesis, presenting proof, weighing strong proofs alongside weak ones, and following the fundamental rules of grammar and spelling. The students often tell me they’ve heard this all before, suggesting that any assignment I might give should not be a problem.

The moment of reckoning occurs after I’ve assigned the first paper. When I receive these papers, I discover that many students, perhaps even the most seemingly confident ones, understand fragments of the writing discipline but have not fully absorbed it. They are in the habit of writing broad theses but are often unable to refine those theses and provide adequate support. Few have a comprehensive understanding of grammatical principles, techniques that would make their writing more readable.

I assure them this is all fine. “We are here to learn,” I say, declaring that “this first paper is only a beginning.” Even though I have presented a rubric and a set of standards for the assignment, we can begin talking about how their papers are working and how they might be improved. Aside from the comments I’ve made in the margins, I take time to elaborate generally on those comments in class. I do this in any number of ways: not just through lectures but by engaging the students in group work, journal writing, essay and book readings, discussions of readings, video instruction from other teachers, exercises that pinpoint special areas that might be improved upon, one-on-one chats, and suggestions to visit the university’s writing center.

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“Getting to know you. Getting to know all about you. Getting to like you. Getting to hope you like me.” Educator Marni Nixon (dubbing Deborah Kerr) in “The King and I.”

From my perspective, this is an attempt to attack multiple problems from multiple angles, an attempt to appeal to different learning styles, but more plainly, an attempt to avoid being a bore. And along with my multipronged approach, I tell the students to revise their papers, offering them two additional attempts at the earlier papers, encouraging them to take advantage. I might suggest refining ideas, searching out better sources, reworking sentences, and setting new deadlines to fit their schedules, but I do request that they not hand everything in at the end of the semester. Then I move on to the next class assignment

The semester advances and I am looking forward to incremental, not mammoth, improvements. But alongside the work on new assignments, some added group projects and oral presentations, I witness the class becoming distracted, and I fear losing their interest. Despite the variety of teaching techniques and my attempts to avoid boring the students, despite my attempts to know as many of them as possible, and despite the items of discipline outlined in my syllabus, students stray. A few may come to class but never hand in papers. Others hand in papers but come to almost no classes. A few arrive persistently late. Still others provide written excuses for missed classes, but should contact phone numbers be called, no one at the doctor’s office knows what to say.

Meanwhile, during class discussions, students pick up cell phones and begin texting beneath their desks or behind conspicuously placed backpacks. Students have by now gotten to know their classmates and have formed relationships that must be renewed during class time, updating one another on the events of the previous day when they did not see one another. More assignments come in and I discover plagiarized sentences, paragraphs, and entire papers. When confronted with these issues and the penalties previously outlined in the syllabus, the students appear to have no recollection of my earlier syllabus review or the request I made to have them read it.

One day I become aware that students who should be revising old papers aren’t taking advantage of my offer to improve those papers or their grades. Settling down to grade a new round of papers, I reach into my bag of class materials and discover the first draft of one student’s paper that I graded many weeks ago. When I returned that graded assignment to the rest of the class, the student must have been absent. In the meantime, I forgot about the paper and didn’t return it. I am disheartened that the student who wrote the paper must have forgotten about it too.


“Of the words of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, provided by the words of the speech itself.” Olive and Baklava Gastronome, Aristotle


During each semester, there seems to come a moment when these issues overwhelm. I stop teaching the subject of English composition and force a conversation with the students about the bigger issues involved, perhaps ethical issues: I ask them about the value of learning, about them owning their educations. I ask about the direction of the class, about the topics that I teach versus topics that interest them more, about what it means to share a class with 20 other students, of learning not only from me but from one another. And once again I make a case for the importance of knowing how to persuade and write and think critically, of knowing how to focus on a topic, of supporting that topic with convincing evidence, and of presenting what they’ve discovered in a way that another person can easily follow.

These conversations are difficult at first. I try to convince them, if for a moment, that this course is important, that what I teach will prepare them for their futures, that I am looking not for perfection but for their attention to the subject matter and an honest effort in their work. The students admit that they don’t mind learning what I’ve been teaching, but most still can’t help confessing that they find writing difficult, subjective—art, not science. I argue that what I have been teaching is a science, even when practiced in its most creative forms. They may not be convinced of this credo, but my efforts to explain myself seem appreciated, and our conversation ends on a high.

Carrying these feelings forward, I commit to making my teaching more responsive but remind them there are things they must know, and therefore, things I must teach. They commit more to the struggle of becoming better writers, having by now reckoned my de-emphasis on grades, my emphasis on learning a process. They give me an education about what it means to study a topic not high on one’s agenda, and I retrench, steadfast in my resolve to impart a subject that I care about deeply. For a time, I am convinced that we could be partners in learning, and I am hopeful that this understanding will last beyond our days together.

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A Hackney Cab Ride through The Corporation of The City of Baltimore: 1834

Battle Monument1

Battle Monument: site of Barnum’s hotel, hackney stands, Reverdy Johnson’s mansion, and the 1835 Bank Riot.

With free blacks and slaves sharing the streets alongside merchant bankers, shopkeepers, artisans, seaman, and an influx of immigrant labor, antebellum Baltimore City in the early 1830s was growing fast. Irish and German emigrants often booked passage with Baltimore as their destination because it was cheaper to land in the mid-Atlantic City than any other city on the east coast. The result was a burgeoning population of 80,000, greater than Philadelphia and second in size only to New York.

In terms of economic development, however, Baltimore leaders feared falling behind. While other east coast cities and states were in a race to create the most efficient routes west to Ohio and develop western resources, be those baskets of grain or buckets of gold, until 1827, Baltimore lacked a solid long distance connection to the untapped west. Already, the Hudson River and Erie Canal were carrying goods to and from New York City; Pennsylvania was developing its Main Line from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh; and the U.S. Government had gotten into the act, joining a group of public and private investors that included the State of Maryland and building the C&O Canal from Washington D.C. to Cumberland.

From Cumberland, the Federal government wanted to keep things moving, sponsoring a National Road. The road would seem to have been a potential boon for Maryland, as it would provide a way for state commerce and travelers to reach the country’s interior by coach. But the National Road gave little advantage to Baltimore’s all-important port, and the City’s mercantile class understood that filling in the gap between Cumberland and their City might not ensure prosperity either. Developing the B&O railroad promised a quick and smooth-riding connection.

So with a strong focus on building the B&O and capturing western markets, Baltimore’s leaders had little time to address anything on the small scale of public transportation services for the City. These were the days of bumpy City street rides over cobblestones, and providing for short distance transport was left to small market forces. While the merchant class might rely on private carriages and drivers to get about Baltimore City, shopkeepers, artisans, and laborers of more modest means walked. The one form of public transport available was a horse or hired hackney carriage, but in an era when employers paid workers an average of $3.50 a week, workers wouldn’t be wise to negotiate a hackney coach ride averaging about a dollar.

Ominus ordinances

“The Corporation of The City of Baltimore” was chartered in 1796, similar to the City Corporations of Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia. Like those other corporations, Baltimore City’s primary focus was to provide transport for goods to and from the American west.

Within “The Corporation of The City of Baltimore” during these years, there were hackney cab businesses offering local services to those who could afford them. One hackney proprietor mentioned in the Baltimore Sun newspapers was an emigrant and native of Ireland named Patrick Reilly. Reilly’s obituary of 1847 describes him as a “defender of our city in 1814,” who “had been long and favorably known as one of our oldest and most enterprising hack owners.” Reilly began a livery stable business about 1818, eventually expanding it to include not only hackney coach rentals but sleigh and funeral hearse rentals as well. One Sun newspaper advertisement describes him and his son George operating “The Old Stand” at the corner of Frederick and Water Streets, an important transportation hub in the heart of the City’s financial district.

In his day, this Irish-American patriot would have required about $750 to outfit a full hackney coach: carriage, harnesses, and two draft horses. It’s likely that he would have purchased the most durable and practical equipment available: nothing as sporting as a fleet of quick two-wheeled Hansom cabs but more likely a stable of sturdy horses and four-wheeled, six-seater coaches. The number of coaches or horses he kept is unclear, but he seemed able to make a living, passing his legacy along to his son George, and establishing himself as one “brave and generous to a fault, honest in all his intercourse with his fellow men.”

Alongside maintenance of his horses and carriages, sleighs, funeral carriages, and one four-wheeled family barouche, Reilly would have also needed to employ hack drivers. In one of his posted Sun advertisements, he made sure to emphasize that he set standards for his employees, describing “[our] driver’s sober.” Customers of the day would seem to have been very concerned that their hackney drivers possess this singular personal trait.

Other mentions of hack drivers in the Sun generally describe the profession in unflattering terms. Rowdy, untrustworthy, profane, and irresponsible drunkards would appear to be among the tamer descriptions. Such characterizations probably reflect the prejudices of the Sun’s editors and readers, not to mention the general anti-immigrant sentiment of the day. Hackney drivers did tend to be emigrants, often Irishmen looking to establish a foothold in their adopted country. They could also be free African Americans attempting to earn a living in a border state.

Reilly and Runaway Ad 1842

A Baltimore Sun newspaper advertisement for P. & G. Reilly hackney carriage proprietors appears above an ad that was not uncommon for its day.

From the modern perspective, a few of these African-American hackney drivers might be considered heroic men. For instance, many free African-American hack drivers could have played important roles as links in the nation’s Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape north. In 1840, the Sun newspaper reported that a free black man named William Adams paid a free colored hack driver, James Wilson, who had a stand on Calvert Street, $25 to drive two slaves, Lloyd Howard and Nicholas Howard, into Strasburg, Pennsylvania.

Regrettably, Wilson and his passengers got caught, but the Sun most certainly reveals its bias when describing Wilson’s testimony during the Adam’s trial. The newspaper’s editors make no attempt to appear neutral in the case but characterize Wilson as a man possessive of “natural stupidity,” overlooking the fact that Wilson was gainfully employed and the more likely scenario that while testifying in the case, he could have been in fear for his freedom. Playing dumb would have been the best way for Wilson to preserve not only his freedom but possibly his life.

Douglass_1840

Frederick Douglas in about 1840, not long after receiving the aid of a hack driver and escaping north.

More successful was the case of Frederick Douglass. On September 3rd of 1838, Douglass, planning his escape north, called upon the services of a friend and hack driver named Isaac Roles to carry his bags to the Philadelphia, Wilmington, & Baltimore train depot. Douglass didn’t wish to carry the bags himself because he hoped not to appear suspicious, believing that carrying bags and walking the streets of the City would surely rouse the attentions of whites. When Roles met Douglass at the train station, he handed the bags off just before Douglass hopped his train and embarked on the first leg of his journey to freedom.

In short, from the perspective of the powers that be, Baltimore hacks living in the antebellum south were an especially suspicious lot, often stereotyped as tricksters and “spungers,” not to be trusted. Another revealing article from the Sun papers describes these men as challenging the patience and pocketbooks of many a customer. With the price of a ride requiring a negotiated settlement at the point of departure, many hacks were known to size up their passengers and adjust rates on the fly. Under such circumstances, travelers who might have been able to afford a hackney ride through Baltimore complained that they were charged outrageous sums.

“One gentleman,—a friend of ours,” the Sun relates, on a journey from Washington D.C. to New York, needed to catch a Philadelphia steamship. To make his connection, the man and his wife required a cab ride from where they’d spent the night, the Barnum Hotel on Battle Monument Square, to the harbor, a distance of about ten blocks. When inquiring of a hack driver about the rates of a cab ride, the man was told that the trip would cost two dollars. Outraged, the gentleman asked other hacks working the same stand their rates but none would make the trip for less, “and the gentleman found himself obliged to assent to the hackman’s exorbitant demand.”

Museum City Hotel and Monument square looking north from Baltimroe Street whiter

From Baltimore Street looking north to the Battle Monument past the Barnum City Hotel.

After arriving at the harbor, the wayfarer and his wife were even more put out when the driver asked an additional 50 cents for the transport of three bags rather than the usual single bag. But “The lady was somewhat unwell…,” the Sun tells us, and “Not a moment was to be lost—the boat would be off in five or ten minutes, and the gentleman had to submit to the imposition, or remain in Baltimore another day. Business rendered his arrival in New York on the following day indispensable [sic], and he was from sheer necessity, compelled to submit to an imposition but little better than highway robbery.”

While out-of-town travelers like the aforesaid gentleman were feeling the sting of the City’s local transportation charges, their professional peers, those natives of Baltimore who conducted Baltimore City business—merchant bankers, railroad directors, lawyers, and political leaders—were starting to worry about their over-speculation in the nation’s systems of long distance travel, the overzealous push for canal and railroad infrastructure.

On March 24, 1834, those worries were realized when the Bank of Maryland, heavily invested in interstate transportation projects, failed. Of the $2.5 million lost in this crisis, $1.6 million was lost by small creditors. Those of means might be able to weather such a storm and wait out the coming depression; however, creditors of lesser means didn’t have that luxury. Their life savings had vanished.

In the months ahead, small-time creditors who had lost their fortunes waited for some remedy or compensation from bank directors but with no result, and by August of 1835, they felt they’d waited long enough. Riots broke out on Baltimore’s cobblestone streets, rioters targeting the home of  Reverdy Johnson, a prominent lawyer and one of the bank directors. Other bank directors and City leaders also became riot victims, and the City was thrown into turmoil.

When Baltimore’s Mayor, Jesse Hunt failed to summon a force adequate to put down the rioters, he resigned his office. Veteran U.S. General and Baltimore native Samuel Smith stepped in, asking for and receiving approval to do so from the Federal government. Smith appointed himself Mayor of Baltimore and, much to the relief of many an abashed bank director, took charge of the City. This action essentially placed Baltimore under martial law and restored the peace.

In the coming two years, between 1836 and 1838, while other banks in the U.S. fell like dominoes, the result of feverish investment on both a national and global scale, the City and State underwent large scale reforms. In a curious twist, the main purpose of these reforms seemed not designed to curb the City’s speculative and risky investment in westward expansion, as might have been warranted following the local bank crisis, but to curb the potential of future riots.

Such reforms generally had a larger effect on the poor and the middle class than they did on Baltimore’s merchant speculators. During this “reform” period, the City increased property taxes and instituted additional licensing requirements and fees. The size of the police force was doubled from around 36 officers in 1835 to around 72, and under Maryland’s Whig Governor, James Thomas, a permanent and more reliable militia was formed.


From the modern perspective, a few of these African-American hackney drivers might be considered heroic men.


As part of these government reforms, Mayor Smith appointed a commission of prominent Maryland citizens to study Baltimore’s local transportation issue. Commissioners included George Winchester, later President of the Susquehanna Railroad Company; William H. Conkling, soon to be Director of the Savings Bank of Baltimore and a corporate partner in the National Fire Insurance Company; and John Thomas, a lawyer and recent member of Maryland’s House of Delegates.

A democrat and supporter of Jacksonian policies in Whig-dominated Maryland, Thomas’s appearance on the commission might have made the panel appear more balanced. In 1836, he had gained notoriety as one of nineteen minority members of the Maryland House of Delegates who attempted to obstruct measures that would have allowed for increased political representation of Maryland’s more populous counties. But Thomas later changed his mind about challenging Whig reform, and no doubt earned the approval of Mayor Smith. Thomas was also likely an associate of Reverdy Johnson, as newspaper advertisements of the day put their names together as having benefited from language instruction from a Mr. Lehmenowski, teacher of French and German. One thing however is clear regarding the hackney cab commission. Neither hack drivers nor hack business proprietors received representation.

Until the commission stepped in to take a close look at the business of hackney carriages, regulation of the industry had been largely a matter of addressing safety concerns: preventing accidents, holding drivers accountable when accidents occurred, preventing public nuisances, and maintaining order in the streets. Hacks were instructed never to abandon their horses and to hold onto their reigns at all times. Speed limits were set at no faster than a walk, drivers had to pass on the right side of the street between curbs and tracks, and parking on a City street had to be done in a specific orientation. Cabs also had to have license plates so they might be tracked in the case of hit and run accidents. And owners who equipped their vehicles with fatter wheels were given breaks on licensing charges as the wider tires were less destructive to the cobblestone roads. The only law that didn’t seem to concern safety regarded religion. Hacks were prohibited from working on Sundays.

But new types of prohibitions came to the hack business when the commission’s report appeared in 1837. When signed into law, hackney business owners like Patrick Reilly could look forward to new property taxes, those placed not only on their stables but now on their carriages. There would also be special commercial licensing fees required for their hack drivers and a set of fixed fare prices to charge their customers. A hack company might charge less than the new fixed amounts, but not more.

Limits of Hack Rides in Baltimore on a Map of 1836

Defined limits of hackney carriage rides and prices in the City of Baltimore, 1838.

These set fees essentially transformed what had been a free-market system of negotiated transportation fares into a public transit system. Within a designated range of City streets, the standard fare for a single passenger would now be 37 and 1/2 cents, about a day’s wages for an unskilled worker. Numerous stipulations were added concerning additional fares for more than one passenger, children passengers, journeys beyond designated City streets, journeys of an hour, charges after 8 PM, and charges between specific times of year.

Hack Cab Rates shade

Here’s what the 1838 hackney carriage charges would have looked like fully printed on a card in “long primer” style font—

Special charges were also designated for trips beginning at steamboat landings or railway depots and continuing to hotels or private residences. Another set price specified the rate for a ride between the City’s center of commerce, the Merchant’s Exchange on Gay Street, to any point along Washington Street in Fells Point. Charges for the hack driver lifting single bags and added bags were also figured: And according to the new ordinance, all of this information was to be “[kept] in at least two conspicuous positions in the interior of such carriage…printed on a white paper card with black ink, by types of a size not less than long primer, so that the same may be conveniently seen and read in the daytime by any person capable of reading.”

merchant's exchange baltimore blue

The center of Baltimore commerce was the Merchant’s Exchange on Gay Street, only a few blocks southeast of Battle Monument Square.

From a historical perspective, setting fixed fares on transportation services was not unheard of. The City of Paris, France, had long ago fixed fares for hackney cab rides, and in London, England, the government had set fees for hackney rides as far back as 1762, even limiting the number of hack coaches that could travel the streets. Following such English and European precedents was nothing new to state governments in the U.S. For example, even while Maryland eliminated monarchical rule from its Constitution in 1776, the State had adapted all other British governing, parliamentary, and judicial institutions, transferring monarchical powers to “the people.” Nonetheless, a cursory reading of the term “people” in the Maryland Constitution reveals that women, Jews, and slaves were not included in the definition of “people,” only white men of property.

Like their British counterparts, the Maryland State Legislature also gave themselves the power to fix prices where such a practice would appear to be in the best interest of the State. Article XII of Maryland’s 1776 Constitution explains “That no aid, charge, tax, fee, or fees, ought to be set, rated, or levied, under any pretense, without consent of the Legislature.” In other words, a businessman could set any price he wanted, but the Legislature had the right to adjust it. Similar language would, of course, later be placed in the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3) when the Federal Government granted itself power to regulate interstate and foreign trade.

So price fixing was not new to national or state governments, just new to hackney cab businesses in Baltimore. In Washington D.C., hack fares had been set as early as 1806, and in Detroit, Michigan, hack prices were fixed in 1833. Most state governments also had a history of setting fees for ferriage and for bridge tolls. “The Corporation of The City of Baltimore” had followed suit in most all of those areas. Perhaps chief among them as regards land travel, the Mayor and City Council had used its jurisdiction over price setting a few years earlier to build its three primary farm-to-market turnpike roads—Reisterstown Road, York Road, and Bel Air Road. While the City contracted private companies to build the roads and collect the tolls, the rates were not left to market forces but written into law.

But for all of the examples mentioned, the question remains, why should government be the one to set the fare when the business owner, the hackney cab proprietor, might establish his own fares based on known expenses? Why shouldn’t businesses be able to negotiate with customers in a free market system? Isn’t fixed pricing an example of government overreaching?

Certainly, fixing fare prices in an industry otherwise ruled by capitalist forces would be unsettling. Under a fixed pricing system, hackney carriage proprietors like Patrick Reilly had to operate within stricter limits, adjusting to government influence. This changed the hack industry, as any industry would have been changed when competition is removed. From 1838 on, whenever a cab owner saw rising prices for items required to run his business—the cost for horses, vets, cabs, cab repairs, oats, hay, stable rent, licensing, and taxes etc.—he could not simply raise his fares accordingly. Now he was forced to petition his local politician to keep cab ride fares in line with his other costs. Otherwise, the cab company owner would have to trust that his government overseers keep tabs on the economic situation and determine the appropriate time for increasing his rates.

For hackney carriage proprietors like Patrick Reilly, the regulations obviously made doing business more complex. It’s possible, however, that the inconvenience of negotiating a fare could have been handled differently, maintaining a more flexible and competitive cost structure. What if, for instance, instead of fixing the price of cab fares, the government had directed cabbies to line up at their stands and advertise their estimated prices on their cabs—much as gas stations advertise fluctuating gas prices today? Under such a system, the customer could walk along the stand, compare prices, and decide which hackney cab to hire.

Captain William Glazier Pecularities of American Cities

The Port and center of The Corporation of the City of Baltimore

But in an era that would soon witness an expansion of technology used to gather and disseminate information—the electric telegraph, Morse code, and quicker methods of printing—there seemed little desire to maintain transparency in pricing information. While publishers would soon produce pamphlets that listed the costs for hackney cab travel in major cities, Boston (25 cents), New York (25 cents), Philadelphia (37 and 1/2 cents), such publications had yet to appear in the 1830s. A government regulation requiring cab owners to post daily prices might sound reasonable, and such a system had been used in  New Haven, Connecticut, for a time, but price fixing sounds extreme. Going a step further and posting those prices only in the interior of the cab might even strike some consumers as a form of entrapment.

Why not allow the free market to decide and post the results on the outside of the cab for everyone to see? Chalk and blackboards were widely available during these years. Perhaps there remained a fear that the untrusted cabbies at one stand would form a cartel and conspire with one another to set prices that did not reflect the true economic situation. The newly expanded police force developed under the reforms might have kept tabs on such collusion, but it’s clear that the constables and watchmen during this period were not organized for the purpose of striking a balance between the interests of the working class hack driver and the interests of the upper-middle class or wealthy hackney cab passengers. More often, law enforcement was tasked with arresting those who disturbed the peace or who were unable to pay their debts.

As regards the City’s emphasis on collecting debts and the wisdom of enacting the 1838 economic reforms in the midst of an economic depression, one year after the reforms, Baltimore’s new mayor, Mayor Leakin, reported that over 28% of all prisoners in the City jail were debtors, 489 out of a total 1754, 10% more than before reform measures were in place. When only 58 of these 489 debtors found means to pay their debts, the trend of throwing too many debtors in jail threatened to cost the City more money in prisoner housing than in recouped debts. In his 1839 communication to the City Council, Mayor Leakin reasoned that abandoning this “inhumane” system of imprisoning debtors ought to be considered, because “so many persons should not be prevented from labouring for the support of themselves.”

When it came to overseeing the hack industry, it wouldn’t seem to make much sense to require a policeman to maintain constant knowledge of the economic forces related to fluctuating cab prices. However by 1865 this was exactly the case when the Baltimore Board of Police Commissioners was given direct authority to set cab fares. But would it be inconceivable that a hack driver or hack business owner might have offered one or two policemen compensation to look the other way when he had a desire to stretch his rates?

Policemen of this time, referred to by their various responsibilities as constables, watchmen, or bailiffs, were not quite the force of authority that we know them as today. Armed with Bowie knives and charged with keeping the peace, watchmen were known to be unreliable and frequently overwhelmed by disgruntled City mobs. One Baltimore Sun article, referring to the watchmen of Baltimore’s neighbor to the north, Philadelphia, makes clear that watchmen were not immune to bribery either. To curb such potential corruption, watchmen would no doubt have had to be overseen by other watchmen and those overseen by still others. To avoid such overly complex systems of checks and balances, a simpler solution than the 1838 rate fixes might have been to get on board with the spirit of the approaching information age, insisting that hack drivers and their proprietors develop a more transparent pricing system. Then market forces could go to work, settling on the most reasonable rates for a ride.

Postscript

As a side note to this story of hack drivers and hack company proprietors, in total, the taxpayers of Maryland eventually relieved the debts of the Bank of Maryland to the tune of 2 to 3 million dollars. While the bank creditors of modest means, having lost $1.6 million, shared a pot of $100,000 in compensation, several Bank of Maryland officials, considered victims of the rioters, were compensated for loss of property to the amount of $60,000. This did not include the singular $40,000 settlement given to former Bank of Maryland Director Reverdy Johnson for damages that rioters caused to his mansion on Battle Monument Square.

HD_johnsonR2

Reverdy Johnson, esteemed legal mind and Director of the Bank of Maryland.

A noted lawyer and professed opponent of slavery, Johnson recovered from the riots well. He later defended Lincoln assassination co-conspirator Mary Surratt, the slave-owning defendant in the case of Dred Scott vs. Sanford, and the Klu Klux Klan. He enjoyed a long career in Maryland business, politics, and jurisprudence, and in 1868 was even appointed Minister to England under the administration of President Andrew Johnson.

In England during the years of Minister Johnson’s appointment, a hackney cab ride of one mile would have cost about 1 shilling, the equivalent of 25 U.S. cents. In Baltimore during that time, a similar hackney ride would have been 75 cents, double the City’s original 1838 rate. However, because of a new technological innovation, horse drawn trolleys that ran on rails and carried a dozen or more passengers at a time, the bulk of the City’s 260,000 residents could now afford a trolley ride at five cents, that figure having been fixed by Baltimore’s Mayor and City Council.

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An Appalachian almost in Paris

IMG_2539My wife tells me she has booked a flight for four to visit Paris, France, not Texas, although I understand that France is Texas-sized. She’s looking to make family memories before our two girls go off to college, and she hopes that those memories will occur during a two-week Parisian summer vacation. For some reason, I had a different set of memories on the dock. I’d always dreamed of renting an RV and taking the all-American Tour de West, exploring the unspoiled wilds of America, checking out our great North American National Parks system, and sampling some Americana.

It’s true. I’ve never stepped around Old Faithful at Yellowstone, the Four Corners, the four famous presidents on Mount Rushmore, or the harrowing cliffs of El Capitan at Yosemite. Nor have I kicked up dust at the edge of the Grand Canyon or winded myself chasing a mountain goat across the icecaps of Glacier National Park. And I would like to, should this morning’s gas prices hold steady, bathe in the mineral hot springs at Olympic National Park, drive through a giant sequoia on the road to Kings Canyon, and explore the Pueblo dwellings at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Oft have I dreamed that along the way, in our rented motorhome, my family might drop in on a few famous American cities and sites too. I’ve been hankering to scale the Saarinen arch in St. Louis since my days of architecture school, ride the public transportation in Portland since the rest of the country started flocking to Portland, and the natives had to start working hard to keep the place weird. I’ve also been winding up to thread Seattle’s Space Needle. My dad visited there on a business trip when I was a boy and brought home a pen with a floating needle inside. I lost the pen but believe it’s time to replace it.

I also don’t want to miss out on the real America either: a hot day in Texas at the Cadillac Ranch, a steamboat cruise along Twain’s Mississippi, or a bowl-full of gumbo in the French quarter. But it appears I have to settle for the Arch de Triomphe, the Notre Dame Cathedral, and a bowl of French Onion Soup at Le Saint-Germain on la rue Cambon.

There were long days, even years, in the 1990s when I did not have a family or even a girlfriend, when I pictured myself living hungry and lean in the City of Lights. I had a newly minted architecture degree, I’d heard the trains of Europe were excellent, and my wanderlust was easily excited by the crinkle of unfolding maps. One afternoon, a pair of college friends phoned from Montmartre and suggested I fly over for a visit. I might have taken the expatriate plunge, gone for a week, stayed for a twenty-year stretch. If not a job in an architecture firm, I pictured myself working as a waiter, eating baguettes and brie, living in a sleeping bag somewhere along the Seine, and writing my first collection of sensitive and obtuse poems.

But I have always been slow on the uptake, unable to make decisions or take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. I missed both the airliner and freighter of those years and turned down my chance to break bread with my bohemian architecture brethren. I kept rooms in Baltimore, where it seemed essential to share my disenchantment about post-modern architecture with my apartment walls and keep tabs on the evolution of Batman movies and grunge rock. I did, however, manage to catch Edie Brickell and her New Bohemians at Hammerjacks one weekend between hose downs at a wet t-shirt contest.

A few weeks from now, I will be strolling the boulevards and wandering the arrondissements of Paris. The ghosts of my long-dead artistic heroes will populate my imagination, and I’ll be bumping elbows with a boho-mania that’s long past. Haussmann and his grand plan may guide me; Le Corbusier may alert me to the purities and impurities of the cubist galleries; and Hemingway, Pound, and Fitzgerald will probably burp in the shadows, sharing cocktails and exchanging sucker punches. But most likely there will be the ghosts of those stuffy Impressionist painters who have been a smudge in my subconscious since boyhood when my eyes crossed Monet’s Japanese Footbridge at the National Gallery in Washington D.C..

In the midst of my indoor Parisian museum sneezing and inexpert tourist rubbernecking, I’m sure to see some American millennial wearing a white long-sleeved button down beneath a threadbare black blazer. His grandfather’s frayed hat band may still hold a red feather. I will envy him the time he has to spend propping himself up on a bridge abutment, envy the time he has to hold his sketchbook and fountain pen before him and converse with reedy Parisian girls as they peer over his elbow and declare, “Vous devez être un artiste!” Oh, how I would like to dilly dally there, spend all day with an eye to the proportions of Notre Dame, nibbling bread, and offering my chardonnay to Juliette Binoche’s niece!

By touring France instead of the American west, our family will miss out on one of our country’s many natural wonders: The Colorado River about 50 miles from where it empties into the Gulf of California.

By touring France instead of the American west, our family will miss out on one of our country’s many natural wonders: The Colorado River about 50 miles from where it empties into the Gulf of California.

“Daaaad,” my daughters will say, interrupting my reverie, “why did you wear that threadbare black blazer? And is that great grandpa’s hat with the red feather or did you buy that at the Value Village back in Baltimore? We’re bored. Can we stop walking through these seedy neighborhoods? What are you looking for anyhow? We should see Versailles. According to our map, Paris Disney is only a few subway stops in the same direction.”

Don’t get me wrong. My girls are not insensitive to their father’s interests and addictions. They know me. They know I’m a regular off-beat, late-boomer, coffee junky. They sympathize, and I imagine that during their engagement with Frommer’s online, they will have come across the names of a few famous cafes, and they will insist that we sit down for some café au lait.

And there I will sit, legs crossed at the knees, exhaling smoke from my phantom Gauloises Brune, hoping like mad that adjacent to our table, this generation’s Simone de Beauvoir will vigorously debate existentialism with her companion, Jean-Paul Sartre. And I will scoff at the American tourists in the more touristy parts of town as they rush to complete their checklists: Eiffel Tower, check; Musée d’Orsay, check; Moulin Rouge, check. Never mind how irked I am that my café au lait costs three times its value in any Baltimore Starbucks, albeit a Starbucks with no literary names attached, just stenciled illustrations of the Lost Generation on wallpaper.

But I must ask, is this the memory I want to leave my girls? Dad, the detached American in Paris, living out an imitation of his poodle-eaten bohemian fantasy?  Dad, struggling hard to find the offbeat, the authentic, the free-thinking Paris while his wife and daughters wonder, “what’s up?” No, why deny what lingers on the precipice, why hold back my inner Appalachian? Why not admit to my obvious displacement?

Then it will be time. It will be time to dispense with my secondhand bohemianism, toss away my keffiyeh, and get on with expressing my redneck. I’ll pull on my cargo shorts, pull over my Virginia Tech Hokie t-shirt, strap on my Under Armour trainers, and do what any USAnian in France would do: Get to seeing the real tourist sights. Because what is a vacation good for if you’re unable to return home, stand around a water cooler, and converse about the common attractions, as you would about last night’s television event?


“It’s not my fault being the biggest and the strongest,” Andre the Giant once said, perhaps expressing the sentiments of so many American tourists in France, “I don’t even exercise!”


After some internet research, I see that the McRent Station in Paris offers a 9-day campervan rental for around $1000. Thankfully, because I have already overcome my inhibitions about revealing an inner hillbilly while still here at home, I will have arrived in France with two flags stashed in my suitcase: one star spangled, one Marylander. Upon acquiring our campervan, I will rivet one flag to each side, softening the impressionistic French light that shines into our RV’s interior breakfast nook. Once done, we’ll trek over to Carrefore, France’s own Wal-Mart-like superstore, and stock up on bulk croissants and cheese blocks before hitting the autoroute.

Although known as “l’ hexagone,” and home country to grid masters like Rene Descartes and Washington D.C. planner, Pierre L’Enfant, France, as I’ve observed on many a map, suffers from a lack of highway or “autoroute” system efficiency. While we Americans enjoy a highway system replete with north-south, east-west, cross-country routes—not to mention big city bypasses and beltways—the French seem to prefer an archaic system of urban nodes that taper into the provinces on radial spokes. It’s a system design that we Americans abandoned once the era of cooperative and profitable train travel ended. But leave it to the old-fashioned, laid back, and dare I say socialistic, French, to retain this model for their superhighways.

Given these transportation limitations, and the prevalence of expensive toll roads everywhere, I’ve consulted the Michelin guide and have attempted to design an itinerary that allows our family to take in as much of the country as we can. Aided by pushpins, I’ve done my best to map out a round trip that sets out from Charles De Gaulle Airport and touches on a few of the nation’s 20-some regions, sampling not only Paris but the West Coast Atlantic, South Pyrenees, Riviera, and Eastern Alps. Along the way, we’ll also be giving the nod to the French provincials and envisaging the country’s natural beauty.

After a few hours driving Paris, I’m thinking we make a brief run at Paris Disney, if not to brunch with Cinderella, then at least to see what was in 1992 the largest parking lot in Europe! From there we’ll pick things up and head northeast of the city on A1, l’autoroute du Nord, to Parc Astérix where my favorite Celtic cartoon characters, Asterix and Obelix, fend off the invading Romans alongside roller coasters and log flumes. Time then for a rendezvous with WWII, cruising along the A13, l’autoroute de Normandie, and landing our campervan on Omaha Beach before dining on moule et frites at D-Day House.

Back on the road, we’ll journey south on autoroute A10, L’Aquitaine, to Parc de Futuroscope near Poitiers, strapping on 3D glasses and making time in a time machine. The Futurescope park hosts Quebec’s own Cirque du Soleil, and their show “La Forge aux étoiles” is said to be “fabuleux!” If we miss the Cirque, we can drop in at adjacent Puy du Fou, a park where vacationers stare agog as King Arthur and his Knights of the Roundtable hover above an enchanted lake and discuss “la quête.”

Should the Renaissance be more to our tastes, du Fou allows us to tour a Renaissance château guided by costumed kings and queens. Or we might opt for more recent history, completing our time travel adventure by taking in “Lovers of Verdun,” a show featuring WWI trench life that has been awarded, “Best Original Creation.”

From Puy du Fou, it’ll be time to ramble south towards the Pyrenees. National Park-starved Americans, like I’m sure to be in France, should know that the Franks count 10 national parks, 49 regional natural parks, and 7 marine natural parks, the more popular parks of which seem to be spaced across the southern and eastern regions of the Pyrenees, Mediterranean, and alps. More so, Americans will be pleased to hear that for no more than $10 to $15 per night, a campervan can get a hook up, which sure beats heck out of apartment rentals or the cost for a one night bed and breakfast.

As we head toward the Pyrenees, we’ll also be sure to stop at the replica of the Lascaux Cave near Dordogne. Whether or not the attraction offers, I am hoping to witness a demonstration of Paleolithic men, or women, blowing iron and manganese-compound pigments from their cheeks, through tubes, and onto an overhead rock that’s already decorated with frolicking horses, deer, and oxen.

With our journey half over, we’ll probably have to skip stops in Provence, the French Riviera, and the casinos of Monte Carlo. But I’ve seen most of Grace Kelly’s better films, and the RV comes with a DVD player if the girls want to catch up to me on Kelly. Also, should I get the itch to gamble, I know that here in the states, bargain bus trips to Atlantic City are only a few New Jersey Turnpike exits away. And considering the potential cultural shock to our daughter’s psyches, it’s probably best to leave the topless beaches of the Côte d’Azur to the continentals. We’ll sober ourselves instead with some Gothic cathedral gawking. We Appalachian USAnians can tolerate only so much “liberté, égalité, fraternité.”

Outside of Paris, in Poissy, we might stop at Mirče Mladenov’s re-envisioned renovation of Le Corbusier’s modestly modern Villa Savoy.

Outside of Paris, in Poissy, we might stop at Mirče Mladenov’s re-envisioned renovation of Le Corbusier’s modestly modern Villa Savoy.

Returning north, we’ll be ready for more urban adventures and a stop in Grenoble, a city set against the alps, and site of the Xth Olympiad. While our comprehensive journey through the French countryside should take us past a few of France’s 64 nuclear reactors, Grenoble boasts examples of the French nation’s more traditional industries. Here we can take comfort in familiar brand names like Hewlett Packard, Becton Dickinson, Caterpillar, Carrefour (sort of), and the semiconductor multinational, STMicroelectronics. There might even be time for a factory tour! And Grenoble, as most WWF fans know, is also birthplace of the legendary Andre the Giant. “It’s not my fault being the biggest and the strongest,” Andre once said, perhaps expressing the sentiments of so many American tourists in France, “I don’t even exercise!”

Further up the A6, or “Autoroute du Soleil,” we might drop in at Dijon to pick up some condiments, but it’s likely that we can purchase most gastronomic delicacies duty free at the De Gaulle Airport terminal, so we’ll pass. Besides, we don’t want to miss the opportunity to cap off our RV excursion by easing up on the pedal and taking one last dip into the City of Lights. After a quick internet search, I’m thinking we’ll call on a physician, request a physical, and take advantage of those discount rates that the French offer Americans for healthcare.

To wind up, what would a trip to France be without sampling a few of the country’s most notable beverages? It’s well-known that France lies in a direct line between the hoppy lands of Belgium and the Czech Republic. Within a short RV drive from the Arch de Triomphe, I have pushed my pushpins into a number of landmark microbreweries. This emergent market in libation is said to be gaining a solid following among the more progressive Parisians, French beers claiming their own unique flavors distinctive from brews in Belgium and Germany. Even as I blog, I can Futurescope a cold French bock lifted to my lips and savor hints of Alsatian peat-smoke and citrus.

While the wife and I quaff our drafts and contemplate a stop at Mickey D’s to pick up one last Royale with Cheese, I’ll ask our girls to de-rivet the American and Maryland flags from either side of our campervan. Then reverently, patriotically, winsomely, the girls will stretch and fold “les couleurs,” tucking them away into our suitcases, at which time Joan and I will finally be able to cozy up together, imagining how each girl will keep one flag as a souvenir, Corinne the Marylander, Cecilia the USAnian. And one day, each girl will hang her respective banner on her respective college dorm room wall, recalling our autoroutes, our amusements, our Carrefours, and our physicals.

“Trop belle,” Joan will observe, breathless after a second or third quaff of her French IPA. “Trop belle.”

“Oui.” I will add. “Oui.”

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Tipping Towards a Living Wage

Arm Band Tip MeI phone an order into my favorite neighborhood pizza joint and stop on my way home to pick up the pies. At the counter where I pay, I’m greeted by a chipper young woman, high voice, curly hair, and a smile that could knock the rust off a Winnebago’s chrome bumper. As I offer my debit card, she returns the receipt with a pen, asking me to sign. That’s when I spot the tip line above the signature line. Should I tip even when I’m not dining in? Should I tip for takeout?

A similar situation happens when I go to the market for a loaf of fresh bread. The cashier prints out my receipt and there again is the line for adding a gratuity: apparently, a programmable feature on all credit and debit card machines. On other occasions, at my favorite specialty coffee shops, I order my $4.56 latte and get shown an app on the iPad screen register. The app offers me “none” and “other” options, but the suggested tip amounts are centered boldly on the screen: $1.00, $2.00. Again I ask, am I required to do all of this cross-counter tipping?

Based on some trusty internet research, there are good reasons to say yes. At the pizza parlor, as I’ve come to understand, the cashier is providing me a number of important cross-counter services. First, she had to take my initial order over the phone. Then, when I arrived, she had to provide me with napkins, and finally, she had to open and close the pizza boxes to show me that I had the correct pies. But that’s not the least of it. The real issue here is the lost wages she will endure while doing these things for a customer-on-the-go when she could have been waiting on dine-in customers, people willing to sit in the restaurant and pony up her deserved 15 to 20% tip. So should I pay up? The answer now, as I should have known earlier, is an unequivocal “Yes!”

Next question. Should I add the 15 to 20% standard gratuity when all I did was pick up takeout? A few comments from an Internet post entitled “Tipping delivery or take out. Do you? How much?” at Chowhound.com  outline the argument. One comment contributor, “Midknight,” suggests that there’s no need for any gratuity at all. “For pickup or take out,” says Midknight, “[I tip] nothing. If I’m doing the work to go get it, why should I be tipping them?” In response, the commentator “Midlife” is more generous. “If it’s a sit down restaurant (not just a takeout place that happens to have some tables),” Midlife explains, “I’ll tip 5-10% if I feel I’m taking someone away from tip-based work or that they’ve taken my order and made sure it’s correct and packed properly.”

My takeaway from these posts and comments is that most takeout customers err on the side of 5 to 10%, and that includes star New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Several years ago, Brees was wrongly excoriated in the press for leaving a $3 tip on a $74.41 Chinese food ticket. Brees cleared matters up when he Tweeted out that his bill had been for takeout, and he later gained public support for using proper takeout tip etiquette. When I do the math, Brees left a 4% tip, and when I add at least one percent for the publicity that the restaurant earned for serving a one percenter, Brees’s tip appears to be perfectly aligned with the 5-10% takeout-tipping standard.

Tip Me

On September 27, 2014, Makenzie and Steven Schultz of Cedar Rapids, IA, did their part to bridge the income gap of one struggling non-living wage earner.

A few cross-counter customers, nonetheless, don’t bother to calculate any percentage at all. For them, regardless of the total bill, a dollar or two added to the tip line suffices. This is much how I treat my bartender when I go out for a drink. Bartenders, unless someone wants to correct me, will settle for a dollar tip for a beer, and we tip them mainly so they will return to sell us our next round. If you don’t tip, then they are within their rights to ignore you and spend more time at the other end of the bar where the heavy tippers congregate.

The argument for tipping our nation’s servers, and what I once called a cashier, becomes even more formidable when you realize that many of them don’t make a living wage. In fact, a decent tip for those in the restaurant industry can mean the difference between living in a group home with friends or living at mom and dad’s home with mom and dad’s cat posse. This seems especially true where the standard hourly rate is $2.13 for waiters and waitresses and has been that since 1991. These servers rely on tips to live, and as they are lucky to earn an average $11.82 an hour with tips—still short of the $15 per hour living wage—I don’t see how such servers can be doing much living.

And yet, $11.82 per hour ranks waiters and waitresses among the better compensated non-living wage workers, considering that many US citizens are forced to reckon with the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. In fact, despite my initial questions about ponying up for cross-counter tipping, in retrospect, my resistance is most embarrassing and marks me as a real skinflint, a whopping cheapskate. Considering the 35-million Americans that don’t even earn a living wage, I can’t help but admit that not only do I not tip a high enough percentage of my bill, I don’t tip a high enough percentage of those in the service industry.

As a refresher, readers should know that there are many people other than waiters, waitresses, cashiers, and bartenders with jobs that don’t earn a living wage, and these people should be tipped. Have you been good to your hairdresser, your barber, concierge, golf caddy, valet, taxicab driver, hotel housekeeper, game dealer, and the usher who wipes down your seat at Oriole Park at Camden Yards? We all know it’s customary to tip these people, don’t we?


Considering how many Americans don’t even earn a living wage, I can’t help but admit that not only do I not tip a high enough percentage of my bill, I don’t tip a high enough percentage of those in the service industry.


And in case you were wondering, the website Thrillist.com suggests that you should also be offering a few dollars to those on the margins of a living wage. Here I’d like to raise your awareness of those who need you to open your wallet a bit wider. The FedEx delivery person who hauled that big box up your front steps, the parking lot worker at the Home Depot who helped you lift your new lawn mower onto the roof of the car, and the appliance delivery guy who pushed your refrigerator around the stair post, all of these people would benefit from your increased generosity. As someone who is often volunteered to lift heavy boxes from one floor or room to another, I can see why.  Late-in-life back surgery and regular visits to the chiropractor can get expensive, and we should all pitch in to fend off high health care costs among this pending population of cripples.

Thrillist.com continues that other than the heavy lifters, I should also tip the Enterprise employee who picks me up, the AAA roadside assistance man who fixes my tire, the Karaoke DJ who brought the funk, the apartment super who came upstairs to snake my drain, the cable satellite installer who climbed onto my slippery roof shingles, the plumber who put his nose closer to my toilet bowl than I’ve ever dared, and the car wash employee who cleaned the sun-dried gum out of my cup holder. I agree, many of these people have thankless jobs that do not earn them a comfortable living wage, and they are all deserving of that little extra.

Added to this list, off the top of my head, I promise not to forget the Wal-Mart employee who helps me find the bottled sodas, the flight attendant who offers me pretzels, the collegiate basketball player who entertains me during March Madness, the Uber driver that uses his own car to drive me home after a drunk, or the elder care worker who adjusts the pillows for my grandmother’s head at the old folk’s home.

At the website Takepart.com, I learn that there are at least an additional fifteen professions aside from those already mentioned not making minimum wage and who should also get tipped. But mostly I’m beginning to think there are so many non-living wage workers, it might be best if, while they are on the job, they be fitted with “Tip Me” arm bands indicating that they are open to receiving tips. This would take the responsibility off the cash-strapped business proprietors who program their credit card machines with that extra line at the bottom of their receipt slips to make sure I pay their low-wage workers. In such a world, I would make sure to constantly keep extra loose dollars in my front pants pockets for my brief but essential encounters with the working indigent.

Ron Sargent of Staples

Shouldn’t diners still tip even when waiters and waitresses have a bad day? When CEO Ron Sargent presided over a 43% drop in Staples’ stock, the company’s board of directors added a $300,000 cash tip to his $5,192 hourly compensation.

I understand that low-wage earners are proud people and might not go for my armband idea. Maybe they’re afraid this would mark them as second class citizens of a sort. In that case, I request they hear me out. In the U.S., there is no shame in asking for, or accepting, a little extra, whether it be help or money, not even among the middle classes.

In the professional world, fine wine, food, or even artworks are not uncommon gifts for gaining and keeping clients. And in many states, primary school teachers, I am told, are free to be given gifts and tips of up to $50, usually around the holidays or at the end of the year. Not a few of our local Baltimore government workers, in fact, are above accepting tips in the form of gift cards.

Tipping or gifting policy also holds true for your neighborhood psychotherapist. Think about it. Is $130 per hour, three times a week, really enough for someone who spends months, even years, listening to you talk about how, when growing up, your mother never cooked your favorite bangers and mash? Seems to me, $130 per hour at three times a week covers only the tip of the iceberg.

No, at all levels of society, there is no shame in accepting a gratuity for a job, well done or not. CEOs of Fortune Five Hundred companies do this all the time, only instead of tips or gifts, they call such gratuities “bonuses.” And when these CEOs are unhappy with their jobs, as Duke Energy CEO Bill Johnson must have been after only one day of work, they do what every self-respecting human being would do. They pick up their $44.4 million compensation checks and move on.

Low wage earners would do well to take a tip from these underappreciated barons of industry. When the wages don’t suffice, and the bonuses—or tips—aren’t forthcoming, move on to a place that will pay you a dignified wage. If you can’t find such a place, then the answer is simple, start your own business and create living wage jobs for others.

As a job creator, all that’s required, according to some of the reading I’ve done, is an idea, a few relationships with people who believe in you, a specified skillset where the competition is slim, some capital, a few opportunities, a great deal of perseverance, and an ounce or two of luck. I may have left one or more things out of this list, but there you have it, the secret formula to success. Now that you know what high wage earners have known for so long, aren’t you kicking yourself for waiting tables?

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Of Straight Men and Comics

IMG_2500“Talk low, talk slow, and don’t talk too much,” John Wayne famously said, eliminating the “big stick” that Teddy Roosevelt so fondly carried, although Wayne implicitly replaces the stick with a rifle. As a youth I was a Wayne fan, fascinated by and even admiring his infrequent utterances, those of the strong, silent cowboy. Men like Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Henry Fonda seemed to personify the Midwestern and Western sensibility, the aspirational values of rugged individualism.

These movie heroes did not speak so much as saddle up horses and swing into action, but when they did speak, they muttered profound thoughts. Similarly, as a regular church goer, I observed that not only my Catholic Catechism teachers, but the other religious leaders of the world, were people who shared a similar tacit speaking style. While neither Jesus nor Buddha exacted moral justice by shooting bad guys, they did have a tendency to speak in profundities.

Upon close observation, my heroes of communication, both secular and spiritual, might exhibit occasional signs of humor, but more often than not, they were sincere people and shared the opinion that actions spoke louder than words. Not only did Jesus say, “Come and follow me,” he also instructed: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor.” He must have practiced what he preached for I have yet to find any mention in The New Testament of the style of his house or its furnishings. As to the Buddha, his action comprised giving up a princedom to wander about homeless and contemplate sickness, aging, and death.

What most impressed me about these great communicators was that men like Jesus, Buddha, John Wayne, and Gary Cooper appeared to have answers to life’s big questions: How to handle pain and injustice, what to expect after death, and how to make peace with a guilty conscience. They appeared born with fully developed moral compasses, and while sometimes tempted to stray, they never struggled in knowing right from wrong. Cooper, as Marshall Will Kane in High Noon, heading out to fight Lee Van Cleef and three other unshaven bad guys, knows the law and his probable fate, he just has to accept it.

In my youth, I made a number of attempts to follow the strong and silent example, to study the classic movies and read the Good Books. I memorized profound sayings, and when I noticed that not too many other people knew those sayings, I hoped to remind them, give them instruction, and perhaps earn some notoriety. When the appropriate times came, I imagined using those sayings and setting everyone at ease with my insights, focusing them on the path toward Truth and Justice. Life has a way, however, of never serving up the exact situation for which you might have planned.

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The conversational comic duo is not exclusive to males.

Picture me of middle or high school age, acnefied cheeks, forehead, and neck, a lanky body in Boy Scout uniform, folded into the back seat of my Boy Scout master’s car. I am accompanied by a number of other Scouts on a long ride to a Civil War battlefield, one of our monthly campouts. To pass the time, the other boys converse and joke around, discussing how they might earn the next merit badge, ask out a cute schoolgirl, or start a rock band. I listen to them, but as is my strong and silent nature, I cannot talk unless I have a profound message to impart. And as I cannot think of a profound message, the code of the strong and silent suggests that I remain mute.

When I do find an opening and contribute one of my profundities, my captive audience can’t help but listen. They congratulate me on my insight, but after hearing me deliver a succession of such profundities, my fellow Scouts catch on and tire of the routine. They find me a bore, turn away, and engage one another in a volume I can barely discern. When I persist in making my points, they start to laugh. And after one too many of these moments, I am awarded the derogatory nickname, “Deep.”

Like John Wayne or Jesus, I suppose I should not have taken this chiding too personally. I should have kept up the strong and silent facade and learned to be comfortable in my self-imposed solitude, my apparent self-possession. However, I do not always like being called names, nor do I like to be ignored. As do most people, I can’t really help expressing my feelings, and I also like having friends. It’s not much fun when others consider you unsettling, annoying, and boring.

One evening during my Deep period, I had the good fortune to catch The Maltese Falcon on television. These were in the days when public television played classic movies. As the celluloid film tripped by, I was most taken by a scene in which the svelte detective, Sam Spade—played by Humphrey Bogart—goes to visit the rotund Kasper Gutman—played by Sydney Greenstreet—to gain information about a prized statue, the Falcon. As it turns out, the oversized Gutman, filmed from below the knees, his gut overflowing an armchair, is also interested in finding out about the bird. As preamble to learning what Spade knows, Gutman introduces himself as “a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.”

Taking a lesson from Gutman, I determined to find new ways to approach conversations on long car rides with fellow Boy Scouts. Wayne’s, Cooper’s, Jesus’s, and Buddha’s methods of delivering profundities began to recede, and I set out to make my way in the art of conversation. But was I “a man who likes talking” or was I “a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk?”


“I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.”

Kasper Gutman


Aside from Gutman and Spade in The Maltese Falcon, I found another pair of model conversationalists on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, a show that I watched regularly on Friday nights when I could stay up late because I had no school the next day. For me, Carson represented “the man who liked talking to a man who likes to talk.” And first and foremost among “men who liked talking,” there was his frequent guest, comedian Buddy Hackett.

There are many examples of straight men and comics—Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, even Carson and McMahon—but I consider Hackett and Carson a great, if accidental, pairing. Carson always appeared an ordinary straight man, and Hackett had all the characteristics of a natural comedian: appearance, gesture, and voice. Plus, Hackett could tell a joke in a traditional story form like no other guest who filled The Tonight Show guest chair. He could create characters with a descriptive detail, was not too proud to be physical, could mimic a voice, build suspense, and as his stories progressed, he could get lost in the tale, an ability that Mark Twain considers more important than delivering an actual punchline.

And then there was Carson, the perfect foil and guide through Hackett’s ramblings, the loyal straight man, delivering the set-ups, sacrificing himself so that Hackett might shine. As a result, the audience not only enjoyed Hackett’s punchline, they grew fonder of Hackett. Seated behind his desk with Hackett in the guest chair, or with any other guest in that chair, Carson always asked the right question, or when needed, interjected the perfect quip.

Carson’s quips never diminished his guest’s humor, simply improved the story or helped it along. When the punchline came, Carson could also punctuate that line with a hardy laugh, reassuring guests that they were the focus of attention and that theirs was a masterful joke. Carson’s laughter also signaled for the audience to join along in the fun if they were having trouble recognizing that there was fun to be had.

By my estimation, it’s harder to be a Hackett than a Carson. The Hackett personality requires a good memory for stories and a natural way of delivering them. I have found it easier to be a straight man, a good host to the rare person of true comic ability. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’d even say that my straight man-listening skills are well-honed. On numerous occasions, I have been complimented for these skills. After a number of conversations and becoming familiar with my style, not a few interlocutors have mentioned, “My, I have enjoyed our talk. You actually seem to listen.”

I can assure those listeners and you, my current blog reader, that this is because not only do I listen, I also nod, sum up important points, and interject additional information when I have some. While my laugh sounds practiced, it is always supportive, and while I may miss the mark with my quips and zingers, my conversational companions almost always appreciate my attentiveness.

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The conversational comic team is not always limited to a duo.

There are, as one might expect, some drawbacks to being a Carson-like conversationalist. For one, the spotlight rarely shines on me. I am content in this, however, because I know how difficult it is to play the comic, and I am willing to have him, or her, enjoy most of the glory. I have made more than one attempt at playing the comic part, at developing my story telling skills, have read and analyzed many a joke and tall tale, and have attempted to deliver. But these attempts never meet with much success. My weaknesses as storyteller, and perhaps straight man for that matter, are that I do not have a naturally comedic face or physique, I rarely have a full studio audience to entertain, and I don’t receive breaks from frequent commercial interruptions.

How often I pray for commercial interruptions during conversation. Such breaks never arrive, and on a four- or six-hour car ride, it’s hard to eliminate the awkward moment, the inevitable pregnant pause. The other troubling aspect of the straight-man/comic model, as just stated, is that most of the conversations I have don’t include a live studio audience. I am restricted to the limited audience of one or two others and often only my companion comic. In a normal conversation, setting your companion up for a joke, then hoping he will also do his own laughing, is more likely to cause confusion. The comic cannot really do both his job and the audiences’s. Still, the Carson-Hackett conversational model generally results in fewer pregnant pauses than the profound utterances of John Wayne or the Buddha.

As an added benefit, no one has ever awarded me a disparaging nickname for an honest attempt at playing the straight man. On rare occasion, my zingers have missed the mark, and I’ve gotten some cold stares, but this has occurred with less frequency than those times when I attempted to deliver profound maxims.

The way I see it, one could do a lot worse than following the Carson-Hackett conversational model. It’s democratic and egalitarian. There’s more give and take and less of a teacher-student or authority-subject relationship. I hate to say it for fear of going to hell or missing out on Nirvana, but Jesus and John Wayne do sort of affect imperious attitudes, freely telling others how they should live and what’s worth believing in. Buddha’s Zen followers, as I understand it, even employ the keisaku, or warning stick, as a way of “awakening” their students. This assumed autocracy might be okay if you share a deep connection with God or the spirit world, but for those of us who have less reliable satellite service, it seems to me that the art of communication is best understood as a civil exchange.

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