It’s an odd exercise, memory. Things float in, connect with other things, sometimes the fragments form stories, other times they’re just fibers stuck between molars, impossible to remove and impossible to stop worrying with your tongue.
I’m often told what an excellent memory I have, yet others regularly remember things in detail that I’ve completely forgotten. It could be that those who praise my memory don’t recall the many things over the years I have irretrievably forgotten. Maybe I do have a better than average memory. I told a fragmentary little fifty year-old story to a friend the other day and observed that it belonged in the Book of Irv. Afterwards I had no recollection of the story. Then I remembered it. Here it is.
My father got home from work one day with a funny story. It was funny and it was bad, a bad story, though we had a good laugh about it back when I was about ten years old. A black colleague of his was on his way home to Rochdale Village. From the subway he took a bus to reach his apartment. On the bus was an ad for Bacardi Rum, I think it was. It had a recipe for mixing a popular new drink. The recipe called for two jiggers of rum, a jigger of something else.
“You actually looked up a jigger, didn’t you, to appear more erudite,” said the skeleton.
A jigger or measure is a bartending tool used to measure liquor, which is typically then poured into a cocktail shaker. It is named for the unit of liquid it typically measures, a jigger or shot, which measures 1.5 US fluid ounces (1.6 imp fl oz; 44 ml). However, bar jiggers come in other sizes and may not actually measure a fluid jigger.
“A fluid jigger,” said the skeleton, impressed.
“He tells me ‘I’m heading home, tired as hell, and of course there’s no seat on the bus, why run enough buses to Rochdale so the people can sit down, you know? I’m standing there and looking at this Bacardi ad that’s right in front of my face and some little asshole with a magic marker has corrected the sign to make my fucking day. I’m reading ‘take three niggers Bacardi dark, two niggers Bacardi light, two niggers this, one nigger that.’ I’m standing on a bus, in my neighborhood and I can’t get away from it, you know what I’m saying Irv? It’s literally in my face. Irresistible to the little fuck with the marker, perhaps, but, I mean, Irv, what the fuck?'”
The skeleton, completely sympathetic to his friends’ torment, nonetheless gets a hearty laugh out of the story when he tells it to us. So do I.
“It’s hard to see him as funny,” my sister said the other day, “since he was so cruel. He could be really sadistic.”
“Your sister is a fluid jigger,” said the skeleton. “Look, obviously, humor is a defense mechanism and its hilarious or not depending on the context. It often comes at the expense of somebody else, quite often a person with more power, or someone perceived as having more power, or trying to get it– you know, to take them down a peg. What we can’t do in the world, which is a brutal place, we can do with a droll aside to the person next to us. It must be said with a straight face, because when the person next to you cracks up he gets a rifle butt in the ribs, a kick in the stomach when he’s on the ground. You must look forward as he’s getting his ass kicked for laughing, and show no emotion whatsoever.”
What are you talking about, dad?
“Humor is a defense mechanism. It’s the best there is in many circumstances, and there’s nothing like a good laugh to cleanse the emotional palate, to remind you of the sweetness of life, even, and especially, when life is most bitter. It’s a good defense mechanism, except against things like clubs, nooses, brass knuckles, guns. I mean, you can laugh about those things, but don’t get caught laughing. That’s all I was saying.
“A joke…you remember those sections you read about humor in the Third Reich. There was state sponsored humor, you know, which you’d hear on the radio, or told by the local gauleiter and such, how funny it was that Jews actually thought they were loyal Germans, things like that. Which is kind of funny, in a sick way, if you think about it. Nazi humor was not to everybody’s taste, but as long as they were winning a lot of Germans found it hilarious, or pretended to. There was another school of humor that could get you killed. People made jokes about Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, at the risk of their lives.
“You remember what the ‘Hitler Cut’ was, right? Castration. If they heard you refer to the Hitler Cut, one of the Fuhrer’s favorite correctives for bad comedians, you’d get… that’s right, the Hitler Cut. Funny, no?”
Not really that funny, no. Some would accuse me of being obsessed with Hitler as it is.
“Well, why wouldn’t you be? He was the driving force that whipped centuries of anti-Semitism into the frothy intoxicating sludge swilled by countless murderous mobs over the course of his thousand year Reich. Some of these hopped up people killed our entire family, outside of the half dozen that made it here, to the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
“But you know, on a more serious note, maybe your sister was right. I mean, on the one hand, I was funny, I made a lot of people laugh. I had a quick wit, let’s say, I was irreverent and I saw the dark side of things clearly and mercilessly. On the other hand, how funny can somebody be if they also are cruel? That’s a fair question, you know? Now that you know Bill Cosby was a serial rapist who drugged otherwise willing women so he could diddle them while they were unconscious, do you still find his pudding commercials that adorable? I remember you had this discussion with your mother, could someone be a great artist and also a Nazi?”
Interesting you bring that up. I had a great moment of clarity on that issue the last time I saw Florence Siegel. I’d gone to visit her in Brooklyn, she was 92 and living on the ground floor of her daughter’s brownstone. The question came up and we both immediately agreed that it was impossible to be a great artist, or any kind of artist, if you were a hater of any kind. Negates whatever else the pretentious fuck is attempting to communicate, pollutes it, makes it disgusting. It was so clear to both of us in that moment, it was hard to imagine my mother and I had ever puzzled over it. Three days later Florence was found dead, the New York Times spread in front of her and a bowl of M & M’s next to her.
“Way to go,” said the skeleton.