Friday, October 23, 2009

My father speaks.

One of the things that my father did, perhaps better than anyone I have ever known, was mangle the language and mess up common phrases for comic effect. There was a series of B-Movies they used to play on TV when I was a kid called “The Bowery Boys,” or “The Dead-End Kids.” The leader of their made-for-the-movies gang was a tough guy/punk kid actor called Leo Gorcey. His fedora was always crushed and its brim was always pushed up. This made him look both threatening and vulnerable.

The Bowery Boys shorts weren’t very good. They were originally made to entertain kids before the feature came on. And in the television era they were something you watched when there was nothing else to do and nothing good on. That said, Leo Gorcey (who played a character called Slip Mahoney) had a gift for the malaprop. He used to say “let’s sympathize our watches,” or “don’t jump to contusions,” or “that’s an optical delusion.”

My father was every bit as bad as Gorcey, but in his own way. He had what seemed like a million different catch phrases. I think my father said these things because they amused him and also to see if anyone was listening. Most of them were patently absurd manglings of famous poems or lyrics. We grew up hearing his manglings, never knowing the references, never finding out that they were lampoons until years or decades later.

For instance, a popular Nat King Cole song which we never heard in its original form, “They tried to tell us we’re too young,” became in my father’s universe “They tried to sell us egg foo young.” Not knowing any better, we just assumed those were the real words. Crazy nonsense that for whatever reason made it into a song.

My father would also declaim rhymes for no reason other than some synapse in his head went off. If he saw someone eating a bagel for instance, not an unusual occurrence, he would recite “As I turned to talk to Conrad Nagel/He scrapped the cream cheese off my bagel.” We had no idea that Nagel was a silent movie matinee idol. We had no idea what this meant or even why it was funny. It was just my father.

One more. He used to say, again for no apparent reason except maybe my brother or me had gotten mosquito bites or poison ivy or something, “You must admire Barbara Frietchie/She always scratches when she is itchy.” We had absolutely no idea that “Barbara Frietchie” was a late 19th Century poem by John Greenleaf Whittier.

Though we never knew it my father didn’t make these things up. That said, they were so much like the things he did make up, in our minds he assumed ownership of them. They became pieces of him that we carried with us when he wasn’t around. So when we saw someone eating a bagel or scratching an itch, we immediately thought of Conrad Nagel or Barbara Frietchie.

Later on in my father’s life, when I was a teenager, he realized that these catch-phrases were a part of who he was. He started pushing himself to come up with more of them, to add a little variety or a bit of philosophical spice to his patter. “You can’t fly on one wing,” he might say or “you can’t carry water up hill.”

Some of the phrases were advertising agency-speak, like “let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes it.” Or “let’s put it on the stoop and see if the cat licks at it.” He might combine those and say something like “let’s run it up the flagpole and see if the cat salutes it.”

If when I was playing baseball on the high school team I told my father I was in a batting slump, his response would be something like, “hit ‘em wear they ain’t.” Or “take two and hit to right.” If I was struggling with a girl friend, he would advise “relationships are like tape. You never know when they will break off.”

Thanks, I would laugh. He’d have been disappointed if I hadn’t.

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