Time now for Friday Fictioneers, a writing challenge hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Fiction in 100 words. if you want to do it, click the link and follow the instructions. My story follows the photo. It’s autobiographical.
When I left the bar it started to rain hard.
On a whim, I offered to buy a woman’s umbrella.
Ten bucks, I said.
Twenty, she countered.
We settled for fifteen.
The rain hammered all around me, dry enough in my portable shelter, pretending I didn’t know where I was walking.
But I knew.
The front gate looked the same as the last time I saw it.
My father’s funeral had been sunny, just as my grandmother’s had been twenty years before.
The gate wasn’t locked, but I would never again be welcomed.
One of the benefits of city living is that you generally don’t need a car–f you are willing to make certain compromises. Cargo carrying is one of them. Groceries, laundry and other bulky errands require ingenuity and planning. Groceries especially, since laundry can be put off ad infinitum.
I grew up in the supermarket era. Every week my mom would fill a hatchback with all the stuff we’d need for the duration. But when I lived in the inner city and I had no idea how to pull that off. The undignified rolling basket my grandmother employed when she lived on the Upper East Side looked ridiculous. I couldn’t picture myself with the damned thing.
I could just go commando and swipe a cart from the lot and push it to my bandit loft above the Communist bookstore, but what then? Do I push it out into traffic? Do I park it by the door and hope somebody takes it?
Then it hit me. The problem was with my thinking, my preconceptions of what “groceries” meant. I pictured boxes of pasta, bunches of lettuce, bags of fruit. But did I need all that stuff? And in bulk? Nope. I just needed something to eat. I revised my expectations downward.
Across the street was a convenience store. Like many such establishments, it was owned by Korean immigrants. They were hard-working, ever-present and distantly friendly. The store was called the Master Mart, but I called it Monster Mart. The tiny place was shoehorned in the corner of a building that had once house a grand hotel built for the 1905 Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition. Now it was a gutted shadow stripped of all ornamentation, carved nto shabby offices for shady lawyers, crooked accountants and a lone private investigator’s office.
The Monster Mart was always open, its limited shelf space packed with items popular in poor neighborhoods. Hostess products, sixteen kinds of chips, hard candy, pretzels, Spam and Hormel and Dinty Moore, all in the types of cans that did not require an opener. Behind the glassed in counter they kept the high-value items such as cigarettes, lottery tickets and pints of Thunderbird. The beer cooler took up at least a third of the space, but the selection was limited to the worst beers in the largest bottles. Budweiser was the top of the food chain .
It was the most successful business in the neighborhood. No wonder, since that corner of downtown was home to the parole office, a drug treatment center, a county-run Alzheimer’s home, and, until it burned down one winter night, an old school flophouse half-full of winos and junkies. The other half was vacant because the rooms were so dreadful that not even the most destitute person would sleep there.
The Korean family seemed happy. To them, I was a curiosity. Though a regular customer, I didn’t fit into the local demographic.I had all my teeth. I bathed. After a few months of seeing me once or twice a week, they started to know my name. The father seemed to worry about me, but was too polite to ask.
One day I was surprised to see a new guy behind the counter. A white kid. I couldn’t believe that the Koreans would hire a white kid at all, especially one that looked a disreputable as this specimen.
I learned later that they had lost their lease when the city bought the entire block, planning to tear it down to make room for the vast gentrification that was just starting (Portland is now the most gentrified city in the US, with almost 60% of low-income and affordable housing being remade and priced to fit the California budget. The retail situation is even more extreme, especially near what is now called the Pearl District but was then called “the shitty part of downtown”).
The Koreans were bought out lock, stock and barrel. The Monster Mart was deemed to serve a need, so the city ran it for a while. The staff was provided by the local halfway houses, the idea being that standing behind a counter in front of surveillance cameras was a nice segue from prison to civilian life.
I stopped going after a while. It was just too goddamned depressing.
Anyway, that’s the backstory for this entry. This was written immediately after the incident described, though I didn’t really steal the stuff. I thought it was a better ending than what really happened, which involved me waiting until the guy came out of the bathroom. I changed it to make it more interesting. Here you go. Slice of life.
I walked into the Monster Mart. There was half a piece of stale old birthday cake with garish pink frosting sitting behind the counter . It was on a paper plate and there was a plastic fork sticking out of it. The counter was clean but worn and the fluorescent lights cast a greenish hue which made the clerk look like a corpse, He was about twenty, his face and neck ravaged by acne which seemed to erupt before my eyes. He had a sparse mustache of thin hairs drooping over a lip pushed out by a set of yellow teeth. His eyes were bloodshot and his lank hair hung wetly about his face. When I got close I got a whiff of him. He smelled like a sink of unwashed dishes. He was smoking a generic cigarette, a menthol.
I grabbed a bag of chips from a wire rack and walked to the back of the store. There was a large convex mirror which hung from the ceiling. I looked up and saw my funhouse reflection. The clerk seemed very far away behind his counter, warped in the distance of the mirror. I picked up a jar of green olives and walked to the cooler. I grabbed out three 40s of Schlitz Malt Liquor. I stopped in the medicine aisle and picked up a bottle of aspirin, a box of No-Doz, a toothbrush and a pen.
I dropped all this on the counter. The olive jar was on its side and rolled down the counter toward the clerk. He didn’t even look at it. It rolled off, shattering between his feet.
“SHIT!” he yelled, jumping back. “I’M CUT!!”
He bent over and grabbed his foot, shod only in a flip-flop. A great deal of blood was spurting from a large cut on his heel. His pants leg was drenched in olive juice.
“Will you watch the counter for me?” he begged.
He hopped into the back holding his foot with both hands like he was going to jump over it.
I waited until he disappeared through the door. Then I grabbed the beer, the No-Doz and several packs of smokes from the counter and left the store, crossing the street at a jog.
So far I haven’t felt the need to chime in on the whole nasty, nasty business of Fifty Shades and a first-time novelist making more than a hundred million dollars. I mean, hell, that stuff happens. The owner of Grumpy Cat made a hundred million dollars last year. So did Glenn Beck. The four-hour workweek sold a million copies offering readers advice on how to sell vitamins that may or not be toxic at a fantastic profit, offshoring all the work to India and China.
And if Grumpy’s owner makes a hundred million dollars, what can it hurt? Worst case scenario is that people start injecting Botox into their cat’s face and making videos of the poor paralyzed thing sitting inert at a piano or behind the wheel of a semi.
But the thing about E.D. James or whatever the hell the pseudonym is (P.D. James, a fine British writer, died soon after this whole thing and I don’t blame her) that bothers me is not that she came out of nowhere. It’s not that she’s awful. Not Dan Brown Awful, not Tom Clancy awful. For me, the experience of reading her work was like reading a journal of an eighth-grader while watching a video of my Aunt Letty masturbating with an fifteen-inch pink dildo. It was horrifying in every way.
It’s not that it’s horrible. It’s not that it went viral. It’s not even that it’s horrible and it went viral.
No, like 9/11, it’s not the tragedy. It’s what came after.
What came after is rather like what happened in the Black Hills when some toothless jackass avoided getting scalped long enough to dig up a testicle-sized nugget and wave it around screaming “GOLD! GOLD! I’M RICH!”
Then every other jackass in the world sold all their earthly belongings and headed for the hills. The Indians, for whom this place is beyond sacred (and who own it by treaty and sheer moral authority) watched a trickle and then a hoard of unwashed, unskilled, violent and ignorant people clamber all over what had been their home turf. They set up horrible towns where they could count on mutual support. They’d go into the assay office with a half ounce of the yellow metal and walk out with enough money to get drunk. Tales of this minor “success” would spur other latecomers, equally greedy, to dig still more holes and junk up the landscape. People got rich, all right, but it was those who sold picks and shovels and whores and whiskey at wildly inflated prices.
This is so much like the terrain I see now of millions of horrible, shitty and untrained writers publishing away in the hopes of garnering a tiny slice of the success that this first-time novelist seemed to drift into with such ease. They form groups, write blogs, tweet to one another. It’s a vast circle-jerk based on the style of your typical MFA fiction workshop, but with no entrance requirements at all.
You see, I give a shit about writing. I’m like Anton Ego in Ratatouille. I don’t believe anyone can do it.
I believe that writing is at once both an art and a craft, a set of skills and talents that, combined with a mixture of arrogance and humility and a tremendous amount of work can sometimes produce a work that is truly good. A work that tells a truth, that has characters that readers can root for, that has a gripping story.
Some of my favorite writers–indeed, some of the best–are not big sellers. “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” said Mencken. Ditto for bad taste.
A friend of mine who is a famous editor at Knopf said as much when he admitted that the only reason the Big Five even publish literary fiction at all is to salve their conscience for printing so many books about how to win at Texas hold ‘em and what Bill O’Reilly thinks of Thomas Jefferson. They feel guilty, and the shit books sell enough that they can afford to do it.
But now with a hundred million e-books out there, most of which range from semi-rancid to obscenely wretched, they have their backs to the wall. Pity, because they function as sort of a cultural immune system. Without them, you can die from the simplest infection, a base virus capable of replicating itself millions of times.
I feel bad for any new writer out there who is truly talented, truly working hard for reasons other than money. They have about as much chance and the next David Bowie or Jimi Hendrix. Which is to say, almost no chance at all.
But have a great fucking weekend anyway, writers. Get back to work.
Seventh grade was chock full of all kinds of nasty shocks for hippie-school me. Doolen Junior High was, i realize now, a pilot program for young inmates who just hadn’t committed any felonies yet. There were guys in the 8th grade who were bused in from South Tucson and who never seemed to be anywhere except the cafeteria where they would slouch against the vending machines and pose such philosophical conundrums as “What’s it worth for me not to kick your ass right now?”
I mean, these guys were huge and mean and there seemed to be an endless supply of them. As the semester proceeded apace, I sensed that they were part of a huge racket designed to intimidate and/or impoverish every kid who had yet to cross the first threshold of puberty. It was Men vs Boys and the men were ruthless. They might not have been full adults, but when your’re 4’11” and slim as a wand, even a middling sized runt with muscles can be mighty intimidating. And some of these guys weren’t runts. I think that a few of the 8th grader might have been as old as 15 or 16. Added to this was the mixed ethnicity of a lot of these young men, exotic and terrifying to a white, white white kid like myself. Chicanos and black kids, mostly, dressed in buttoned-up flannels and khakis or wife-beaters to show off crude tattoos and rippling muscle. A lot of the Chicano guys wore pressed bandanna headbands that almost covered their eyes. In other circumstances it might have been comical, in this case it was pretty terrifying.
Every big guy was teamed with at least one and sometimes two smaller guys. The little guys were the instigators. A typical exchange would involve one of the Juniors slamming into me by the vending machine and yelling in my face, demanding my coke, asking me how much money I had. If I said nothing, there would be this sort of exchange:
HIM: (shoving me) “What you say, man? What you say about my mama?”
ME: “I didn’t say nothing about your mama.”
HIM: (shoving me again, getting up in my face) “You calling me a liar?”
You notice how I used the double negative to try and sound tougher? It didn’t work.
My friend Sullivan perfected a way to make the bullies leave him alone. He pretended to have seizures and would throw himself down, hollering and flailing until they recoiled in horror. As soon as they left he’s open his eyes, get up and continue on his way. I was astounded this worked so well, but work it did. The bullies developed a weird respect for him, as though he was some kind of anointed saint or something. They called him “Loco” and even, once, “Bugs.”
Unfortunately, he stumbled on this technique first, so the rest of us were out of luck. You couldn’t very well have two people pulling that same stunt and expect to get away with it. Besides, the floors at Doolen were pretty nasty, covered with spilled milk and gum and whatnot. You couldn’t choose your battlefield with the Sullivan method, so the writhing inevitably caused him to get pretty stained and soiled. He didn’t have to do it for very long, but it was enough that he probably got in trouble with his mom. She was the kind of mom who bought those clothes with the matching animals–giraffe with giraffe, zebra with zebra. I mean, she did this in seventh grade.
Well, look there. I managed to write an entire post without getting to the procrastination part. I guess this is ironic, but I’ll get to it sometime.
I was coming home from my job at the Denny’s at 4am. I was supposed to work until seven but it was so slow that Derby, my manager, cut me loose. He had me make sure the pans were all done and that there were no backed up plates in the Hobart. Not a problem because it was really slow, being Sunday night and everything. The AA people finally left around one and after that there was nobody.
I’ll say this about AA people. Those fuckers can really stretch a dime. I mean, at one point there must have been eighteen of them sitting around a table. Most of them drank coffee, but there was maybe one or two food orders between all of them. And even then they didn’t eat all the omelette or toast. And they stayed for hours.
At least they were nice enough, and even though the check was less than thirty bucks they tipped Charise seven. She gave me two for clearing the table while she went out and smoked.
Anyway, I came home and saw these two dogs going at it. I know dogs have feelings because when I was a kid we had a dog who loved me, but I don’t think there was any romance in what I witnessed. It was animal and ugly and made bad sounds.
Still, it made me lonely. I live in a one-room apartment in a building that used to be a bum hotel. You can still smell the old dead wine and all the Top and Bugler that got smoked there over the years. It’s in the floorboards and the walls. I came back to my room and saw my little cot and I got real sad. You know how it is when you feel sorry for yourself?
Yeah, that was how it was with me. Bad, too.
I tried to sleep, but my brain is a bastard. It kept showing me the dogs. Worse yet, it kept saying mean stuff.
The mean thing it said was that dog has more than you, Speedway. You have a shit job but he’s out on the street getting laid.
I called in the next day and quit. My P.O is going to be pissed, but he said there might be something out at the airport. I knew a dude with a felony rap who worked out there, so maybe it’s still possible.
Pray for me, and please don’t feel sorry for me. I do enough of that for myself.
Full disclosure: the first bar I ever drank in was a strip club, Daddy Jack’s Blue Note in Tucson, Arizona. I was fifteen. My sister had been dancing there since she was sixteen and had a huge circle of friends among the dancers and clientele. I sat on a banquette amidst ten or so topless young women and drank Miller Lite poured from a plastic pitcher. The girls were very nice. It was a slow night, and early to boot. They were glad to have the distraction of a callow young man. They fussed over me and told me that I was so cute they could barely stand it. Up close they didn’t look glamorous or sexy. They looked like girls at a sleepover who had gotten into Mommy’s makeup.
After a while, I left. I’d see one of the girls from time to time, at the market or the gym. We would nod to one another but not speak. The world of Daddy Jack’s was insular and did not have anything to do with the world outside. Even at fifteen I knew that much.
Over the course of my life I would go to strip clubs off and on. Portland has a number of them, and when friends from out of town would drop by we would go to one or the other (especially true when the friends were from Texas). Once, as I led a group of guys into Mary’s(Portland’s oldest strip club), two EMTs wheeled a gurney out of the now-defunct St. Francis Hotel, long a home of last resort for junkies and drunks. Atop the gurney was a body lightly covered with a sheet. As they jostled it out of the narrow doorway, a hand slipped out and dangled over the side. The skin was blue and dead, the nails discolored and cracked. I saw my buddies’ faces as they watched the corpse being trundled to the waiting ambulance, the arm bouncing like a 2 x 4 in a truck bed.
“Welcome to Portland,” I said as I held the door.
This Uberhaus blog entry is from early 1999 and is based on a story that happened in Tucson to a friend of my sister. This girl was not the stripper who puts herself through college (they do exist, but are far more rare than is commonly believed–ask a stripper if you don’t believe me) but neither was she a junkie. She was beautiful and had a way of holding herself aloof, a manner that often worked in her favor. I wondered what might have happened to her. One night I came home from a long shift and wrote this story.
So, without further ado, the Stripper Story from 1999’s Überhaus Diary
Hard Pussy was the one who pointed it out to me. She ran the bar at Butch’s, a narrow joint wedged between the deathtraps and bum flops in Old Town. Butch’s was the first place in the state to buck the local ordinances and offer, as the neon said, LIVE GIRLS TOTALLY NUDE ONSTAGE. Another neon featured a curvy dancer swiveling her hips. You could see it for blocks.
The stage wasn’t much, a single platform thrusting like a dock between the tables. There was no pole or any of that fancy crap that newer clubs had. There wasn’t even a DJ, just an old Seeburg jukebox at the back of the stage, its arc of yellow lights glowing through the haze.
Hard Pussy had been in the Merchant Marine during the war, cutting her hair and passing as a man for the duration. Her being a woman, she said, “never came up.” She had a face like a work glove, meaty hands and a genuine Sailor Jerry tattoo on her arm. She’d worked at Butch’s since it opened in 1948, so long that most people thought that she herself was Butch. She’d set them straight on that score if they asked. Most didn’t. There may have been a real Butch, but I never met him.
Butch’s did good business, even in the daytime. There would be at least three or four menin the joint fifteen minutes after it opened at 11, guys with outside sales jobs, cops and firemen, construction workers on lunch. For the talent, Butch’s was either the first rung on the ladder or the last, depending on the dancer’s age and ability. Once in a while there was somebody extraordinary, like the black girl with a bass clef tattooed on her ankle who went on to play with a famous jazz trumpet player in New York City. It was rare, but it happened.
Pretta was a girl like that. I thought so, anyway. Pretta was my favorite. I was in love with her, I realize now. I was twenty-three, new in town. I had no friends, an outside sales job I hated, and the start of a drinking problem. It was a cliché for me to fall for a stripper, but there you have it.
I’d come in and watch her, try to figure out what she was thinking. I knew she was smart because sometimes she’d sit with me and make jokes. I never got to know her at all, but you couldn’t have convinced me of that at the time.
I loved how she leaned against the jukebox, fingers in her mouth while she flipped through the selections. It didn’t matter how carefully she picked. Her music was always shitty. Some dancers have a knack for picking the perfect song, but with Pretta it was just the opposite. The music never fit the mood and was always inappropriate for her style of dancing. If you could even call it a style. Lena Horne and a fast gyration. The Electric Prunes and a slow swivel. It was always just wrong.
I guess she was maybe 20 with a the lovelest face I ever saw in my life. Long black hair like a crow’s wing spilling over high cheekbones and huge dark eyes that seemed half asleep. And a body without flaw, smooth and pearly in the smoke, a figure carved of ivory by a Chinese master. Pretta habitually wore an expression of intriguing blankness, a canvas upon which anything might be written. Sister. Daughter. Whore. Maybe all three.
Hard Pussy gave me my drink, rye and ginger in a beer mug. I offered her a smoke and we lit up. “Say, Charlie,” she said in that diesel voice, low and rattling, “I think you’re shit out of luck. Your honey’s taken up with Doctor Bob.”
Hard Pussy knew I had it bad for Pretta and teased me about it whenever I came in. I tried to always be there when Pretta was working, so lately she’d had plenty of opportunity.
The news about Dr. Bob was bad, but I can’t say it was a surprise. I’d been around long enough to see it happen a few times.
Sooner or later Dr. Bob would come in to check out the new girl. He’d stand and watch the stage from across the room, sipping his bottled tonic and not tipping a dime, leaning his pointy elbows on the tall table like he was at a livestock auction. Then he’d leave. This would go on for a while, but one time he’d saunter across the bar and drop a hundred at the dancer’s feet, looking at her face from behind his tinted glasses.
Some girls would fawn all over such big money, but the cooler customers would ignore it like it was fifty cents. It was his test. If the dancer treated the money like shit, then the Doctor would be interested. If she so much as presented her ass to him he’d have nothing more to do with her.
More girls than you might think passed the test.
Later, he’d have them over for a table dance or two, talking quietly to them all the while. Hard Pussy frowned on table dances, except for Doctor Bob. He paid for that unique privilege.
Within a few days, the dancer would belong to Dr. Bob. She’d still get up on the stage to do her set, but afterwards she wouldn’t sit at the bar with the other customers. She’d sit with the Doctor and ignore any other overtures.
Hard Pussy didn’t mind because even though Dr. Bob only drank tonic water, he would always drop a hundred or two every time he came in. Hard Pussy didn’t pay the girls. They worked for tips. Some of them cleared five hundred a night.
Usually, Doctor Bob’s chosen would start to put on airs, showing off some new ring, necklace or a dress. Before long she’d be staying up at his house. Sometimes she would disappear for a week or two, showing back up with a cosmetic improvement like new tits or a nose job.
And then she’d be gone altogether. A month or two. Maybe longer. But then she would come back, looking like she’d been though the wars.
Hard Pussy told me the longest any girl had stayed gone was six months. That was Jaqui, whose father was a lawyer. Jaqui was hard as rocks about getting her way, an amazon, six-two with red hair and eyes like a pirate.
“But even she came back, ” Hard Pussy said. “And she looked worse than all the rest of ’em put together. That Dr. Bob knows how to tear down a woman, chew her up so small she chokes on herself.”
Hard Pussy wouldn’t say what went on up at the Doctor’s house, but I found out later he was a trust-fund MD who didn’t need to practice. He had particular tastes, most of which he’d keep to himself until the moment was right.
With each new girl he would create the illusion that she was the one. And so it would go, Dr. Bob asking more and more until one day she’d refuse him, refuse to allow a further escalation. The next thing the dancer knew she was outside the front gate, lucky if she’d been able to grab an outfit or cabfare. Plenty of girls knew the humiliation of flapping down the streets of the affluent Hills neighborhood in slippers and a teddy, cried-out mascara giving her raccoon eyes as she squinted in the harsh sun. These broken girls would usually dance for maybe a month or two, shadows of their former selves. Then be gone for good.
I fugured I knew what Pretta’s fate would be with the Doctor. Everybody did, except Pretta herself. It was like the last act of a farce where all the actors but one are in on the secret and the audience laughs along with them at the fool who hasn’t figured out the obvious. Pretta was mindlessly picking out her music because the poor kid actually thought that her ship had come in. She was positive that within a year she’d be driving around in a Mercedes , a pink poodle on her lap.
My take is a guy like Dr. Bob only feels alive when he ruins something beautiful, like a vandal who slashes a Monet. I guess up until he met Pretta, he never found one he couldn’t destroy. Maybe that was why he did what he did.
I was out of town when it happened, but it was spectacular enough that it made it onto the evening news. The neighbors had heard the screaming and called the cops and one of those nightcrawler vultures with a police scanner got there before the police and took that footage that made it to the crime show. Most of it had to be heavily edited because it was too much even for cable, but the blood on the walls and the carpet told enough.
The picture they ran of Pretta must have been from her high school annual. She looked about fifteen, but her eyes still had that look, that never-touch-me stare like she stood alone on some island you could never get to. That look could make a man fall in love, or worse. They gave her real name, too. A little girl’s name. It didn’t fit her. I could see why she had changed it.
I never said goodbye to Hard Pussy. I got a regular job in another town, quit drinking, and settled down with a girl I met at church.
With her long black hair and big dark eyes, my wife looks like she might be Pretta’s sister. But her eyes are different. They invite you in and ask you questions.
It’s not the same kind of love I had for Pretta. It may not be love at all.
In a televised interview, Orson Welles spoke of his friendship with Ernest Hemingway. It was a long association, the two men knowing one another for twenty years. They weren’t especially close, but the times they spent with one another were quite rewarding.
One thing that struck me about Welles’ remarks was an observation that Hemingway’s wicked sense of humor is almost totally lacking in his prose. Sure, he has jokes, but they are usually grim stories of men giving each shit about something or other. In A Farewell to Arms the captain in the mess kids the priest “Every night it’s five against one” while holding up his hand and making a jerking-off motion. That sort of thing.
Welles said that Hemingway in person was not only funny, he was freaking hilarious. Yet you don’t find that wit in his written work. You can see it in his collected correspondence, of which the first two volumes have been published. They’re a must-read for any true fan (and I’ll likely address that subject at length in another post, since I am also an avid letter-writer).
So, humor. What makes for a funny read? David Sedaris is funny as hell on the page (and twice as funny when he reads aloud). Woody Allen can be funny, but he can also be dreadful. Bukowski was funny. Flannery O’Connor was funny. Faulkner was hilarious–As I Lay Dying is, in essence, one big joke.
But it’s hard. Cormac McCarthy is fond of dropping jokes into his otherwise horrifying stories, such as the ones told by the characters in All the Pretty Horses or the end of the first chapter of Blood Meridian. Annie Proulx will sometimes devote an entire story to a joke (plus she names her characters things like Ribeye Kluke and Leecil Bewd, which doesn’t hurt). A lot of writers try and fail. Some are funny without meaning to be, such as Famous Author Dan Brown, the author of many bestselling books people read by the millions after they buy them in bookstores.
So why is it funny at all? Sometimes it’s dialogue, sometimes it’s pacing. Almost always there is a juxtaposition of the ludicrous and the normal, the ironic assumptions that can be seen as foolishly arrogant. As with a good joke, there is set-up and anticipation. Sometimes there is flip wordplay and even a pun or two.
Ridiculous, embarrassing, ironic. All of that. I love reading funny stuff. The beginning of Portnoy’s Complaint is hilarious (even the title). A Confederacy of Dunces is both ridiculous and tragic.
One of my absolute favorites is Mark Twain. One of my best friends moved to Germany and, though really smart, has struggled awfully to gain even passing mastery of the language (a prerequisite for employment in Deutschland; contrary to popular American opinion, most Germans in fact do not speak fluent English). Added to this is the ever-present underlying sense of superiority that Germans exude at all times.
How many Germans does it take to screw in a light bulb?
In Germany, our light bulbs last so long they never need to be changed
And so on. Twain really nails it in this article. I am pretty sure that the copyright has lapsed on this piece and it is in the public domain , but who knows. Whatever happens, it won’t be like the time my buddy did some work for Disney and put the character he designed on his portfolio website. I think he got a cease and desist email within an hour or so.
Anyway, here is Mark Twain’s The Awful German Language. I am pretty sure you’ll think this is funny as hell.
The Awful German Language, by Mark Twain
I went often to look at the collection of curiosities in Heidelberg Castle, and one day I surprised the keeper of it with my German. I spoke entirely in that language. He was greatly interested; and after I had talked a while he said my German was very rare, possibly a “unique”; and wanted to add it to his museum.
If he had known what it had cost me to acquire my art, he would also have known that it would break any collector to buy it. Harris and I had been hard at work on our German during several weeks at that time, and although we had made good progress, it had been accomplished under great difficulty and annoyance, for three of our teachers had died in the mean time. A person who has not studied German can form no idea of what a perplexing language it is.
Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, “Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.” He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it. So overboard he goes again, to hunt for another Ararat and find another quicksand. Such has been, and continues to be, my experience. Every time I think I have got one of these four confusing “cases” where I am master of it, a seemingly insignificant preposition intrudes itself into my sentence, clothed with an awful and unsuspected power, and crumbles the ground from under me. For instance, my book inquires after a certain bird — (it is always inquiring after things which are of no sort of consequence to anybody): “Where is the bird?” Now the answer to this question — according to the book — is that the bird is waiting in the blacksmith shop on account of the rain. Of course no bird would do that, but then you must stick to the book. Very well, I begin to cipher out the German for that answer. I begin at the wrong end, necessarily, for that is the German idea. I say to myself, “Regen (rain) is masculine — or maybe it is feminine — or possibly neuter — it is too much trouble to look now. Therefore, it is either der (the) Regen, or die(the) Regen, or das (the) Regen, according to which gender it may turn out to be when I look. In the interest of science, I will cipher it out on the hypothesis that it is masculine. Very well — then the rain is der Regen, if it is simply in the quiescent state of beingmentioned, without enlargement or discussion — Nominative case; but if this rain is lying around, in a kind of a general way on the ground, it is then definitely located, it isdoing something — that is, resting (which is one of the German grammar’s ideas of doing something), and this throws the rain into the Dative case, and makes it dem Regen. However, this rain is not resting, but is doing something actively, — it is falling — to interfere with the bird, likely — and this indicates movement, which has the effect of sliding it into the Accusative case and changing dem Regen into den Regen.” Having completed the grammatical horoscope of this matter, I answer up confidently and state in German that the bird is staying in the blacksmith shop “wegen (on account of) denRegen.” Then the teacher lets me softly down with the remark that whenever the word “wegen” drops into a sentence, it always throws that subject into the Genitive case, regardless of consequences — and that therefore this bird stayed in the blacksmith shop “wegen des Regens.”
N. B. — I was informed, later, by a higher authority, that there was an “exception” which permits one to say “wegen den Regen” in certain peculiar and complex circumstances, but that this exception is not extended to anything but rain.
There are ten parts of speech, and they are all troublesome. An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each inclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect, and the monument is finished. I suppose that this closing hurrah is in the nature of the flourish to a man’s signature — not necessary, but pretty. German books are easy enough to read when you hold them before the looking-glass or stand on your head — so as to reverse the construction — but I think that to learn to read and understand a German newspaper is a thing which must always remain an impossibility to a foreigner.
Yet even the German books are not entirely free from attacks of the Parenthesis distemper — though they are usually so mild as to cover only a few lines, and therefore when you at last get down to the verb it carries some meaning to your mind because you are able to remember a good deal of what has gone before. Now here is a sentence from a popular and excellent German novel — which a slight parenthesis in it. I will make a perfectly literal translation, and throw in the parenthesis-marks and some hyphens for the assistance of the reader — though in the original there are no parenthesis-marks or hyphens, and the reader is left to flounder through to the remote verb the best way he can:
“But when he, upon the street, the (in-satin-and-silk-covered-now-very-unconstrained-after-the-newest-fashioned-dressed) government counselor’s wife met,” etc., etc. 
1. Wenn er aber auf der Strasse der in Sammt und Seide gehüllten jetzt sehr ungenirt nach der neusten Mode gekleideten Regierungsräthin begegnet.
That is from The Old Mamselle’s Secret, by Mrs. Marlitt. And that sentence is constructed upon the most approved German model. You observe how far that verb is from the reader’s base of operations; well, in a German newspaper they put their verb away over on the next page; and I have heard that sometimes after stringing along the exciting preliminaries and parentheses for a column or two, they get in a hurry and have to go to press without getting to the verb at all. Of course, then, the reader is left in a very exhausted and ignorant state.
We have the Parenthesis disease in our literature, too; and one may see cases of it every day in our books and newspapers: but with us it is the mark and sign of an unpracticed writer or a cloudy intellect, whereas with the Germans it is doubtless the mark and sign of a practiced pen and of the presence of that sort of luminous intellectual fog which stands for clearness among these people. For surely it is not clearness — it necessarily can’t be clearness. Even a jury would have penetration enough to discover that. A writer’s ideas must be a good deal confused, a good deal out of line and sequence, when he starts out to say that a man met a counselor’s wife in the street, and then right in the midst of this so simple undertaking halts these approaching people and makes them stand still until he jots down an inventory of the woman’s dress. That is manifestly absurd. It reminds a person of those dentists who secure your instant and breathless interest in a tooth by taking a grip on it with the forceps, and then stand there and drawl through a tedious anecdote before they give the dreaded jerk. Parentheses in literature and dentistry are in bad taste.
The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they make by splitting a verb in two and putting half of it at the beginning of an exciting chapter and the other half at the end of it. Can any one conceive of anything more confusing than that? These things are called “separable verbs.” The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the author of the crime is pleased with his performance. A favorite one is reiste ab — which means departed. Here is an example which I culled from a novel and reduced to English:
“The trunks being now ready, he DE- after kissing his mother and sisters, and once more pressing to his bosom his adored Gretchen, who, dressed in simple white muslin, with a single tuberose in the ample folds of her rich brown hair, had tottered feebly down the stairs, still pale from the terror and excitement of the past evening, but longing to lay her poor aching head yet once again upon the breast of him whom she loved more dearly than life itself, PARTED.”
However, it is not well to dwell too much on the separable verbs. One is sure to lose his temper early; and if he sticks to the subject, and will not be warned, it will at last either soften his brain or petrify it. Personal pronouns and adjectives are a fruitful nuisance in this language, and should have been left out. For instance, the same sound, sie, meansyou, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it meansthem. Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six — and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sie to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.
Now observe the Adjective. Here was a case where simplicity would have been an advantage; therefore, for no other reason, the inventor of this language complicated it all he could. When we wish to speak of our “good friend or friends,” in our enlightened tongue, we stick to the one form and have no trouble or hard feeling about it; but with the German tongue it is different. When a German gets his hands on an adjective, he declines it, and keeps on declining it until the common sense is all declined out of it. It is as bad as Latin. He says, for instance:
Nominative — Mein guter Freund, my good friend.
Genitive — Meines guten Freundes, of my good friend.
Dative — Meinem guten Freund, to my good friend.
Accusative — Meinen guten Freund, my good friend.
N. — Meine guten Freunde, my good friends.
G. — Meiner guten Freunde, of my good friends.
D. — Meinen guten Freunden, to my good friends.
A. — Meine guten Freunde, my good friends.
Now let the candidate for the asylum try to memorize those variations, and see how soon he will be elected. One might better go without friends in Germany than take all this trouble about them. I have shown what a bother it is to decline a good (male) friend; well this is only a third of the work, for there is a variety of new distortions of the adjective to be learned when the object is feminine, and still another when the object is neuter. Now there are more adjectives in this language than there are black cats in Switzerland, and they must all be as elaborately declined as the examples above suggested. Difficult? — troublesome? — these words cannot describe it. I heard a Californian student in Heidelberg say, in one of his calmest moods, that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.
The inventor of the language seems to have taken pleasure in complicating it in every way he could think of. For instance, if one is casually referring to a house, Haus, or a horse, Pferd, or a dog, Hund, he spells these words as I have indicated; but if he is referring to them in the Dative case, he sticks on a foolish and unnecessary e and spells them Hause, Pferde, Hunde. So, as an added e often signifies the plural, as the s does with us, the new student is likely to go on for a month making twins out of a Dative dog before he discovers his mistake; and on the other hand, many a new student who could ill afford loss, has bought and paid for two dogs and only got one of them, because he ignorantly bought that dog in the Dative singular when he really supposed he was talking plural — which left the law on the seller’s side, of course, by the strict rules of grammar, and therefore a suit for recovery could not lie.
In German, all the Nouns begin with a capital letter. Now that is a good idea; and a good idea, in this language, is necessarily conspicuous from its lonesomeness. I consider this capitalizing of nouns a good idea, because by reason of it you are almost always able to tell a noun the minute you see it. You fall into error occasionally, because you mistake the name of a person for the name of a thing, and waste a good deal of time trying to dig a meaning out of it. German names almost always do mean something, and this helps to deceive the student. I translated a passage one day, which said that “the infuriated tigress broke loose and utterly ate up the unfortunate fir forest” (Tannenwald). When I was girding up my loins to doubt this, I found out that Tannenwald in this instance was a man’s name.
Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print — I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:
Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
She has gone to the kitchen.
Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?
It has gone to the opera.”
To continue with the German genders: a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female — tomcats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and notaccording to the sex of the individual who wears it — for in Germany all the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all. The inventor of the language probably got what he knew about a conscience from hearsay.
Now, by the above dissection, the reader will see that in Germany a man may think he is a man, but when he comes to look into the matter closely, he is bound to have his doubts; he finds that in sober truth he is a most ridiculous mixture; and if he ends by trying to comfort himself with the thought that he can at least depend on a third of this mess as being manly and masculine, the humiliating second thought will quickly remind him that in this respect he is no better off than any woman or cow in the land.
In the German it is true that by some oversight of the inventor of the language, a Woman is a female; but a Wife (Weib) is not — which is unfortunate. A Wife, here, has no sex; she is neuter; so, according to the grammar, a fish is he, his scales are she, but a fishwife is neither. To describe a wife as sexless may be called under-description; that is bad enough, but over-description is surely worse. A German speaks of an Englishman as theEngländer; to change the sex, he adds inn, and that stands for Englishwoman —Engländerinn. That seems descriptive enough, but still it is not exact enough for a German; so he precedes the word with that article which indicates that the creature to follow is feminine, and writes it down thus: “die Engländerinn,” — which means “theshe-Englishwoman.” I consider that that person is over-described.
Well, after the student has learned the sex of a great number of nouns, he is still in a difficulty, because he finds it impossible to persuade his tongue to refer to things as “he” and “she,” and “him” and “her,” which it has been always accustomed to refer to it as “it.” When he even frames a German sentence in his mind, with the hims and hers in the right places, and then works up his courage to the utterance-point, it is no use — the moment he begins to speak his tongue flies the track and all those labored males and females come out as “its.” And even when he is reading German to himself, he always calls those things “it,” where as he ought to read in this way:
TALE OF THE FISHWIFE AND ITS SAD FATE 
2. I capitalize the nouns, in the German (and ancient English) fashion.
It is a bleak Day. Hear the Rain, how he pours, and the Hail, how he rattles; and see the Snow, how he drifts along, and of the Mud, how deep he is! Ah the poor Fishwife, it is stuck fast in the Mire; it has dropped its Basket of Fishes; and its Hands have been cut by the Scales as it seized some of the falling Creatures; and one Scale has even got into its Eye, and it cannot get her out. It opens its Mouth to cry for Help; but if any Sound comes out of him, alas he is drowned by the raging of the Storm. And now a Tomcat has got one of the Fishes and she will surely escape with him. No, she bites off a Fin, she holds her in her Mouth — will she swallow her? No, the Fishwife’s brave Mother-dog deserts his Puppies and rescues the Fin — which he eats, himself, as his Reward. O, horror, the Lightning has struck the Fish-basket; he sets him on Fire; see the Flame, how she licks the doomed Utensil with her red and angry Tongue; now she attacks the helpless Fishwife’s Foot — she burns him up, all but the big Toe, and even she is partly consumed; and still she spreads, still she waves her fiery Tongues; she attacks the Fishwife’s Leg and destroys it; she attacks its Hand and destroys her also; she attacks the Fishwife’s Leg and destroys her also; she attacks its Body and consumes him; she wreathes herself about its Heart and it is consumed; next about its Breast, and in a Moment she is a Cinder; now she reaches its Neck — he goes; now its Chin — it goes; now its Nose — shegoes. In another Moment, except Help come, the Fishwife will be no more. Time presses — is there none to succor and save? Yes! Joy, joy, with flying Feet the she-Englishwoman comes! But alas, the generous she-Female is too late: where now is the fated Fishwife? It has ceased from its Sufferings, it has gone to a better Land; all that is left of it for its loved Ones to lament over, is this poor smoldering Ash-heap. Ah, woeful, woeful Ash-heap! Let us take him up tenderly, reverently, upon the lowly Shovel, and bear him to his long Rest, with the Prayer that when he rises again it will be a Realm where he will have one good square responsible Sex, and have it all to himself, instead of having a mangy lot of assorted Sexes scattered all over him in Spots.
There, now, the reader can see for himself that this pronoun business is a very awkward thing for the unaccustomed tongue. I suppose that in all languages the similarities of look and sound between words which have no similarity in meaning are a fruitful source of perplexity to the foreigner. It is so in our tongue, and it is notably the case in the German. Now there is that troublesome word vermählt: to me it has so close a resemblance — either real or fancied — to three or four other words, that I never know whether it means despised, painted, suspected, or married; until I look in the dictionary, and then I find it means the latter. There are lots of such words and they are a great torment. To increase the difficulty there are words which seem to resemble each other, and yet do not; but they make just as much trouble as if they did. For instance, there is the word vermiethen (to let, to lease, to hire); and the word verheirathen (another way of saying to marry). I heard of an Englishman who knocked at a man’s door in Heidelberg and proposed, in the best German he could command, to “verheirathen” that house. Then there are some words which mean one thing when you emphasize the first syllable, but mean something very different if you throw the emphasis on the last syllable. For instance, there is a word which means a runaway, or the act of glancing through a book, according to the placing of the emphasis; and another word which signifies to associatewith a man, or to avoid him, according to where you put the emphasis — and you can generally depend on putting it in the wrong place and getting into trouble.
There are some exceedingly useful words in this language. Schlag, for example; and Zug. There are three-quarters of a column of Schlags in the dictionary, and a column and a half of Zugs. The word Schlag means Blow, Stroke, Dash, Hit, Shock, Clap, Slap, Time, Bar, Coin, Stamp, Kind, Sort, Manner, Way, Apoplexy, Wood-cutting, Enclosure, Field, Forest-clearing. This is its simple and exact meaning — that is to say, its restricted, its fettered meaning; but there are ways by which you can set it free, so that it can soar away, as on the wings of the morning, and never be at rest. You can hang any word you please to its tail, and make it mean anything you want to. You can begin with Schlag-ader, which means artery, and you can hang on the whole dictionary, word by word, clear through the alphabet to Schlag-wasser, which means bilge-water — and includingSchlag-mutter, which means mother-in-law.
Just the same with Zug. Strictly speaking, Zug means Pull, Tug, Draught, Procession, March, Progress, Flight, Direction, Expedition, Train, Caravan, Passage, Stroke, Touch, Line, Flourish, Trait of Character, Feature, Lineament, Chess-move, Organ-stop, Team, Whiff, Bias, Drawer, Propensity, Inhalation, Disposition: but that thing which it does notmean — when all its legitimate pennants have been hung on, has not been discovered yet.
One cannot overestimate the usefulness of Schlag and Zug. Armed just with these two, and the word also, what cannot the foreigner on German soil accomplish? The German word also is the equivalent of the English phrase “You know,” and does not mean anything at all — in talk, though it sometimes does in print. Every time a German opens his mouth an also falls out; and every time he shuts it he bites one in two that was trying to get out.
Now, the foreigner, equipped with these three noble words, is master of the situation. Let him talk right along, fearlessly; let him pour his indifferent German forth, and when he lacks for a word, let him heave a Schlag into the vacuum; all the chances are that it fits it like a plug, but if it doesn’t let him promptly heave a Zug after it; the two together can hardly fail to bung the hole; but if, by a miracle, they should fail, let him simply sayalso! and this will give him a moment’s chance to think of the needful word. In Germany, when you load your conversational gun it is always best to throw in a Schlag or two and aZug or two, because it doesn’t make any difference how much the rest of the charge may scatter, you are bound to bag something with them. Then you blandly say also, and load up again. Nothing gives such an air of grace and elegance and unconstraint to a German or an English conversation as to scatter it full of “Also’s” or “You knows.”
In my note-book I find this entry:
July 1. — In the hospital yesterday, a word of thirteen syllables was successfully removed from a patient — a North German from near Hamburg; but as most unfortunately the surgeons had opened him in the wrong place, under the impression that he contained a panorama, he died. The sad event has cast a gloom over the whole community.
That paragraph furnishes a text for a few remarks about one of the most curious and notable features of my subject — the length of German words. Some German words are so long that they have a perspective. Observe these examples:
These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions. And they are not rare; one can open a German newspaper at any time and see them marching majestically across the page — and if he has any imagination he can see the banners and hear the music, too. They impart a martial thrill to the meekest subject. I take a great interest in these curiosities. Whenever I come across a good one, I stuff it and put it in my museum. In this way I have made quite a valuable collection. When I get duplicates, I exchange with other collectors, and thus increase the variety of my stock. Here are some specimens which I lately bought at an auction sale of the effects of a bankrupt bric-a-brac hunter:
Of course when one of these grand mountain ranges goes stretching across the printed page, it adorns and ennobles that literary landscape — but at the same time it is a great distress to the new student, for it blocks up his way; he cannot crawl under it, or climb over it, or tunnel through it. So he resorts to the dictionary for help, but there is no help there. The dictionary must draw the line somewhere — so it leaves this sort of words out. And it is right, because these long things are hardly legitimate words, but are rather combinations of words, and the inventor of them ought to have been killed. They are compound words with the hyphens left out. The various words used in building them are in the dictionary, but in a very scattered condition; so you can hunt the materials out, one by one, and get at the meaning at last, but it is a tedious and harassing business. I have tried this process upon some of the above examples. “Freundschaftsbezeigungen” seems to be “Friendship demonstrations,” which is only a foolish and clumsy way of saying “demonstrations of friendship.” “Unabhaengigkeitserklaerungen” seems to be “Independencedeclarations,” which is no improvement upon “Declarations of Independence,” so far as I can see. “Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen” seems to be “General-statesrepresentativesmeetings,” as nearly as I can get at it — a mere rhythmical, gushy euphuism for “meetings of the legislature,” I judge. We used to have a good deal of this sort of crime in our literature, but it has gone out now. We used to speak of a things as a “never-to-be-forgotten” circumstance, instead of cramping it into the simple and sufficient word “memorable” and then going calmly about our business as if nothing had happened. In those days we were not content to embalm the thing and bury it decently, we wanted to build a monument over it.
But in our newspapers the compounding-disease lingers a little to the present day, but with the hyphens left out, in the German fashion. This is the shape it takes: instead of saying “Mr. Simmons, clerk of the county and district courts, was in town yesterday,” the new form put it thus: “Clerk of the County and District Courts Simmons was in town yesterday.” This saves neither time nor ink, and has an awkward sound besides. One often sees a remark like this in our papers: “Mrs. Assistant District Attorney Johnson returned to her city residence yesterday for the season.” That is a case of really unjustifiable compounding; because it not only saves no time or trouble, but confers a title on Mrs. Johnson which she has no right to. But these little instances are trifles indeed, contrasted with the ponderous and dismal German system of piling jumbled compounds together. I wish to submit the following local item, from a Mannheim journal, by way of illustration:
“In the daybeforeyesterdayshortlyaftereleveno’clock Night, the inthistownstandingtavern called `The Wagoner’ was downburnt. When the fire to the onthedownburninghouseresting Stork’s Nest reached, flew the parent Storks away. But when the bytheraging, firesurrounded Nest itself caught Fire, straightway plunged the quickreturning Mother-stork into the Flames and died, her Wings over her young ones outspread.”
Even the cumbersome German construction is not able to take the pathos out of that picture — indeed, it somehow seems to strengthen it. This item is dated away back yonder months ago. I could have used it sooner, but I was waiting to hear from the Father-stork. I am still waiting.
“Also!” If I had not shown that the German is a difficult language, I have at least intended to do so. I have heard of an American student who was asked how he was getting along with his German, and who answered promptly: “I am not getting along at all. I have worked at it hard for three level months, and all I have got to show for it is one solitary German phrase — `Zwei Glas‘” (two glasses of beer). He paused for a moment, reflectively; then added with feeling: “But I’ve got that solid!”
And if I have not also shown that German is a harassing and infuriating study, my execution has been at fault, and not my intent. I heard lately of a worn and sorely tried American student who used to fly to a certain German word for relief when he could bear up under his aggravations no longer — the only word whose sound was sweet and precious to his ear and healing to his lacerated spirit. This was the word Damit. It was only the sound that helped him, not the meaning;  and so, at last, when he learned that the emphasis was not on the first syllable, his only stay and support was gone, and he faded away and died.
3. It merely means, in its general sense, “herewith.”
I think that a description of any loud, stirring, tumultuous episode must be tamer in German than in English. Our descriptive words of this character have such a deep, strong, resonant sound, while their German equivalents do seem so thin and mild and energyless. Boom, burst, crash, roar, storm, bellow, blow, thunder, explosion; howl, cry, shout, yell, groan; battle, hell. These are magnificent words; the have a force and magnitude of sound befitting the things which they describe. But their German equivalents would be ever so nice to sing the children to sleep with, or else my awe-inspiring ears were made for display and not for superior usefulness in analyzing sounds. Would any man want to die in a battle which was called by so tame a term as aSchlacht? Or would not a consumptive feel too much bundled up, who was about to go out, in a shirt-collar and a seal-ring, into a storm which the bird-song word Gewitterwas employed to describe? And observe the strongest of the several German equivalents for explosion — Ausbruch. Our word Toothbrush is more powerful than that. It seems to me that the Germans could do worse than import it into their language to describe particularly tremendous explosions with. The German word for hell — Hölle — sounds more like helly than anything else; therefore, how necessary chipper, frivolous, and unimpressive it is. If a man were told in German to go there, could he really rise to thee dignity of feeling insulted?
Having pointed out, in detail, the several vices of this language, I now come to the brief and pleasant task of pointing out its virtues. The capitalizing of the nouns I have already mentioned. But far before this virtue stands another — that of spelling a word according to the sound of it. After one short lesson in the alphabet, the student can tell how any German word is pronounced without having to ask; whereas in our language if a student should inquire of us, “What does B, O, W, spell?” we should be obliged to reply, “Nobody can tell what it spells when you set if off by itself; you can only tell by referring to the context and finding out what it signifies — whether it is a thing to shoot arrows with, or a nod of one’s head, or the forward end of a boat.”
There are some German words which are singularly and powerfully effective. For instance, those which describe lowly, peaceful, and affectionate home life; those which deal with love, in any and all forms, from mere kindly feeling and honest good will toward the passing stranger, clear up to courtship; those which deal with outdoor Nature, in its softest and loveliest aspects — with meadows and forests, and birds and flowers, the fragrance and sunshine of summer, and the moonlight of peaceful winter nights; in a word, those which deal with any and all forms of rest, repose, and peace; those also which deal with the creatures and marvels of fairyland; and lastly and chiefly, in those words which express pathos, is the language surpassingly rich and affective. There are German songs which can make a stranger to the language cry. That shows that the sound of the words is correct — it interprets the meanings with truth and with exactness; and so the ear is informed, and through the ear, the heart.
The Germans do not seem to be afraid to repeat a word when it is the right one. they repeat it several times, if they choose. That is wise. But in English, when we have used a word a couple of times in a paragraph, we imagine we are growing tautological, and so we are weak enough to exchange it for some other word which only approximates exactness, to escape what we wrongly fancy is a greater blemish. Repetition may be bad, but surely inexactness is worse.
There are people in the world who will take a great deal of trouble to point out the faults in a religion or a language, and then go blandly about their business without suggesting any remedy. I am not that kind of person. I have shown that the German language needs reforming. Very well, I am ready to reform it. At least I am ready to make the proper suggestions. Such a course as this might be immodest in another; but I have devoted upward of nine full weeks, first and last, to a careful and critical study of this tongue, and thus have acquired a confidence in my ability to reform it which no mere superficial culture could have conferred upon me.
In the first place, I would leave out the Dative case. It confuses the plurals; and, besides, nobody ever knows when he is in the Dative case, except he discover it by accident — and then he does not know when or where it was that he got into it, or how long he has been in it, or how he is going to get out of it again. The Dative case is but an ornamental folly — it is better to discard it.
In the next place, I would move the Verb further up to the front. You may load up with ever so good a Verb, but I notice that you never really bring down a subject with it at the present German range — you only cripple it. So I insist that this important part of speech should be brought forward to a position where it may be easily seen with the naked eye.
Thirdly, I would import some strong words from the English tongue — to swear with, and also to use in describing all sorts of vigorous things in a vigorous ways. 
4. “Verdammt,” and its variations and enlargements, are words which have plenty of meaning, but the sounds are so mild and ineffectual that German ladies can use them without sin. German ladies who could not be induced to commit a sin by any persuasion or compulsion, promptly rip out one of these harmless little words when they tear their dresses or don’t like the soup. It sounds about as wicked as our “My gracious.” German ladies are constantly saying, “Ach! Gott!” “Mein Gott!” “Gott in Himmel!” “Herr Gott” “Der Herr Jesus!” etc. They think our ladies have the same custom, perhaps; for I once heard a gentle and lovely old German lady say to a sweet young American girl: “The two languages are so alike — how pleasant that is; we say `Ach! Gott!’ you say `Goddamn.'”
Fourthly, I would reorganize the sexes, and distribute them accordingly to the will of the creator. This as a tribute of respect, if nothing else.
Fifthly, I would do away with those great long compounded words; or require the speaker to deliver them in sections, with intermissions for refreshments. To wholly do away with them would be best, for ideas are more easily received and digested when they come one at a time than when they come in bulk. Intellectual food is like any other; it is pleasanter and more beneficial to take it with a spoon than with a shovel.
Sixthly, I would require a speaker to stop when he is done, and not hang a string of those useless “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden seins” to the end of his oration. This sort of gewgaws undignify a speech, instead of adding a grace. They are, therefore, an offense, and should be discarded.
Seventhly, I would discard the Parenthesis. Also the reparenthesis, the re-reparenthesis, and the re-re-re-re-re-reparentheses, and likewise the final wide-reaching all-inclosing king-parenthesis. I would require every individual, be he high or low, to unfold a plain straightforward tale, or else coil it and sit on it and hold his peace. Infractions of this law should be punishable with death.
And eighthly, and last, I would retain Zug and Schlag, with their pendants, and discard the rest of the vocabulary. This would simplify the language.
I have now named what I regard as the most necessary and important changes. These are perhaps all I could be expected to name for nothing; but there are other suggestions which I can and will make in case my proposed application shall result in my being formally employed by the government in the work of reforming the language.
My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.
A Fourth of July Oration in the German Tongue, Delivered at a Banquet of the Anglo-American Club of Students by the Author of This Book
Gentlemen: Since I arrived, a month ago, in this old wonderland, this vast garden of Germany, my English tongue has so often proved a useless piece of baggage to me, and so troublesome to carry around, in a country where they haven’t the checking system for luggage, that I finally set to work, and learned the German language. Also! Es freut mich dass dies so ist, denn es muss, in ein hauptsächlich degree, höflich sein, dass man auf ein occasion like this, sein Rede in die Sprache des Landes worin he boards, aussprechen soll. Dafür habe ich, aus reinische Verlegenheit — no, Vergangenheit — no, I mean Höflichkeit — aus reinische Höflichkeit habe ich resolved to tackle this business in the German language, um Gottes willen! Also! Sie müssen so freundlich sein, und verzeih mich die interlarding von ein oder zwei Englischer Worte, hie und da, denn ich finde dass die deutsche is not a very copious language, and so when you’ve really got anything to say, you’ve got to draw on a language that can stand the strain.
Wenn haber man kann nicht meinem Rede Verstehen, so werde ich ihm später dasselbe übersetz, wenn er solche Dienst verlangen wollen haben werden sollen sein hätte. (I don’t know what “wollen haben werden sollen sein hätte” means, but I notice they always put it at the end of a German sentence — merely for general literary gorgeousness, I suppose.)
This is a great and justly honored day — a day which is worthy of the veneration in which it is held by the true patriots of all climes and nationalities — a day which offers a fruitful theme for thought and speech; und meinem Freunde — no, meinen Freunden — meinesFreundes — well, take your choice, they’re all the same price; I don’t know which one is right — also! ich habe gehabt haben worden gewesen sein, as Goethe says in his Paradise Lost — ich — ich — that is to say — ich — but let us change cars.
Also! Die Anblich so viele Grossbrittanischer und Amerikanischer hier zusammengetroffen in Bruderliche concord, ist zwar a welcome and inspiriting spectacle. And what has moved you to it? Can the terse German tongue rise to the expression of this impulse? Is it Freundschaftsbezeigungenstadtverordnetenversammlungenfamilieneigenthümlichkeiten? Nein, o nein! This is a crisp and noble word, but it fails to pierce the marrow of the impulse which has gathered this friendly meeting and produced diese Anblick — eine Anblich welche ist gut zu sehen — gut für die Augen in a foreign land and a far country — eine Anblick solche als in die gewöhnliche Heidelberger phrase nennt man ein “schönes Aussicht!” Ja, freilich natürlich wahrscheinlich ebensowohl! Also! Die Aussicht auf dem Königsstuhl mehr grösser ist, aber geistlische sprechend nicht so schön, lob’ Gott! Because sie sind hier zusammengetroffen, in Bruderlichem concord, ein grossen Tag zu feirn, whose high benefits were not for one land and one locality, but have conferred a measure of good upon all lands that know liberty today, and love it. Hundert Jahre vorüber, waren die Engländer und die Amerikaner Feinde; aber heute sind sie herzlichen Freunde, Gott sei Dank! May this good-fellowship endure; may these banners here blended in amity so remain; may they never any more wave over opposing hosts, or be stained with blood which was kindred, is kindred, and always will be kindred, until a line drawn upon a map shall be able to say: “This bars the ancestral blood from flowing in the veins of the descendant!”
Procrastination is a positive experience for me. I get a lot accomplished.
In fact, I would wager that I get more done by putting things off for a day than most people do putting things off for a week.
But before you close this window and opt to read this later, I want to assure you this skill didn’t just arise in me overnight. Though I come from a long line of procrastinators (Dad took sixteen years to complete his PhD thesis), it wasn’t like I was some kind of prodigy.
In fact, when I started putting things off until later, I was pretty terrible.
Let me tell you the story of my first homework assignment.
I was in seventh grade and had no idea whatsoever how to deal with the immense stress of having to do actual work on what had been free time. You may be wondering how I managed to avoid homework until the age of thirteen, but the answer is quite simple.
See, I went to a hippie elementary school with no homework, no grades, no desks, no structure at all. It wasn’t even called a school. They called it the Exploratory Learning Center. The classes were all mixed together in these big rooms full of beanbag chairs and low tables. My teacher wore beads and shirts open to the third button. We called him by his first name, Will.
To call the school “unstructured” is like saying a loud fart in church is funny. At my school we pretty much did whatever we wanted all day, every day. Personally, I liked to draw and read and craft props for the serial Star Trek game we had every day on the two-hour lunch/recess. I made this in the Art Room, a vast workshop full of plywood squares, circuit boards, paint, plastic tubes, yarn, hot glue and a million other orts and leavings of 1970s America.
Instead of grades, we had conferences. These informal affairs were held once or twice a year. My parents were invited, of course, and anyone else who wanted to come. Siblings, neighbors, friends of the family. Sometimes my parents would make a party of it because Will like to have conferences in the evenings. He’d have candles and incense going and sometimes snacks of humus and veggies. I don’t recall if my parents ever brought wine, but I wouldn’t put it past them.
At the conferences, we would all lower ourselves into the beanbag chairs and talk about how I was doing in school.
It usually went like this:
WILL: Your son, man, is like, a super creative kid. I mean, his drawing is outta sight, and he’s reading this really heavy stuff, man. Like, the other day, he was reading this Aldous Huxley book. Nobody assigned it, man. He just was, like, reading it on his own.
MOM: How’s his math coming?
WILL: Well, Mrs C, you know, he doesn’t really dig math too much. We rap about it, but he’s just not, like, stoked about it.
Dad was usually silent through these things. He had thick glasses, so he might have been asleep. Those beanbag chairs were nothing if not comfortable.
So, when I left elementary school I could read Faulkner but I didn’t know any multiplication tables not covered by a Schoolhouse Rock cartoon. I knew no science beyond how to make a type-1 Phaser out of a block of wood and hot glue. As far as social studies and history, I was spotty. I knew every fact about World War Two aircraft, but I had no idea about the Electoral College (not that this has changed much since).
Needless to say, seventh grade came as a rude shock. I was given a homework assignment by Mrs. Fischer, the remedial math teacher. The conversation is etched forever in my memory.
“Mrs. Fisher, I don’t understand what this is.”
“It’s homework. Take it home, do the assignment, and turn it in tomorrow.”
“Do the assignment? You mean at home?”
“That’s right. It’s homework. Work you do at home.”
The sudden realization dawned, a huge and terrible shock. Mrs. Fisher could reach her terrible claw-like hand into my afternoon, the sacred time when I watched He-Man at 3, Hogan’s Heroes at 3:30, Brady Bunch at 4, Gilligan’s Island at 4:30 and two episodes of Star Trek from 5 to 7. And now all that was gone? I swallowed.
“You mean on my own time?”
She nodded, clearly not grasping the obscenity.
I walked out in a haze, my chest feeling like a squeezed-up orange.
My time was not my own. It was inconceivable.
On the bus home, I took out my math textbook. It weighed about six pounds. The kid next to me saw it and sniggered.
“You’re in retard math!” He tapped the kid next to him. “Look! TARD MATH!”
I had to nip that in the bud lest I get stuck with that as a nickname forever. I hauled off and clubbed him in the face with the book.
My assignment flew into the air, the pages floating like birds. The kid’s nose got blood everywhere, including spattering my homework. His pal evaporated like steam from a hot beverage, leaving me and the bleeding bully. The bus driver glanced into his rearview at the noise, but he saw it wasn’t an emergency so he turned his attention back to the road. . I don’t know what would have qualified as a real emergency. Perhaps a screwdriver in an eye or something.
The bully and I stared at each other. I gripped my book tighter. I’d been reading a lot of detective novels over the summer, so I was just about to try some tough guy dialog on him. Listen, you bum. I’ll wind you like a cheap clock.
But I didn’t get a chance. His entire personality morphed from Don Rickles into Eddie Haskell.
“Gee, I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. I was just jerkin’ your chain. No hard feelings?”
He then proceeded to kiss my ass by helping me gather the sheets from the floor and stuff them into my backpack. Though the sudden violence made me momentarily forget my troubles, it wasn’t long before the dread returned.
My stop came up. I got off the bus. I walked to my house.
Here is an Überhaus Diary entry from 1998 where I talk about a show and then bitch about rich people. Ever the trendsetter.
I remember this Headhunters show well. Paul Jackson, the bassist, broke a string on his bass in the middle of a solo. Rather than abandoning it, he motioned his bass tech over. The guy knelt in front like he was fellating him and changed the string in about ninety seconds. Jackson didn’t drop a note. It was one of the most extraordinary feats of musicianship I ever witnessed.
I loved the Crystal Ballroom, I had the great good fortune of seeing it prior to its renovation by the McMenamin brothers in 1996. The erstwhile owner, Moon Louie (of the Portland Chinese restaurant dynasty) was in Cassidy’s Bar when I got off work. he offered to show it to me. The place is like no other. It has one of the last floating dance floors in the US. A floating floor looks like your usual gorgeous wooden dance floor, except it bounces like a trampoline. Literally–boing boing boing. The floorboards rest on cups full of huge ball bearings set atop the adjustable floor joists. so the natural flex of the long oak functions as a kind of a spring. They were quite fashionable in the 20s when dance marathons were all the rage.
The Crystal was also one of the only theaters that allowed Negro acts in the heavily segregated city. Acts included Duke Ellington. Cab Calloway, Goree Carter (okay, not sure about him, but you should check him out anyway) and the Isley Brothers (with a young James Hendrix on guitar, reportedly fired on the very stage for showboating and hogging the spotlight). A few years later, the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead played.
By the time I saw it, the place was a ruin. The floor was broken in several places, the fine plaster filigree cracked and pitted. A thick layer of dust covered everything. I looked at its faded glory, the hush of an abandoned cathedral right on the edge of downtown. High arched windows streaked with grime, the painted decorations around the proscenium peeling away. I wanted to live there. I hoped with all my heart that it would be saved.
The McMenamin Brothers rode in to the rescue, having rehabilitated old taverns, roadhouses and even the Multnomah County Poor Farm. Mike and Brian loved old buildings, and they did a superb job of restoring the ballroom, adding a billiard hall in the bar below and a small annex across the street. I lived directly across from the place, and sometimes went on a weekday afternoon to shoot pool with a buddy who worked in outside sales.
These trips down memory lane are bittersweet, but I’m glad to take them. It was a hell of a great time, lots of life packed into a very few months. Isn’t that always the way? I wrote this one right after the show. I had recently started working at a new bar and was having some run-ins with rich privileged bastards. I had no idea it was the start of a national trend.
Sept 21st 1998
Herbie Hancock sold out the Crystal Ballroom last night to an almost all-white audience. He played with the original Headhunters, his first really popular band, a band that was really the first to blur the lines between rock, jazz and funk. He had several what can only be classified as pop hits: Chameleon, Watermelon Man, Thrust. Suddenly, it seemed, jazz had become profitable.
Jazz has always seemed punk to me, not just because it’s difficult to do or because it has an exclusive language. No, the punkness of it comes from the fact that anybody who plays jazz never has a ghost of a chance of making any money. Modern jazz has never been a big-seller and the future doesn’t seem any different, so the players are all consigned to holding down day jobs or else living in perpetual poverty.
The reconciling of financial success must be a tough one for jazz and punk players alike. I remember a story about how Kurt Cobain, suddenly wealthy and famous from one hit song, bought a Lexus. His punker friends ripped him for being a yuppie and a sellout to the point that he took the car back to the dealership and retrieved his beater Volvo.
I’m sure that that didn’t help at all, at least as far as his friends were concerned. Kurt had sold out. Bigtime.
But in this country, personal value and personal financial value are almost indistinguishable. The old credo of “if you’re so smart how come you’re not rich?” is burned into us at an early age, as is the notion that money is a fix-all which, if bestowed, makes for instant happiness and satisfaction.
Of course, if you look at the restless behavior of the wealthy celebrity set, you can see that the inverse is actually true; routine arrests, divorces and DUI’s are more the norm than anything. Money doesn’t buy happiness. It buys a great lawyer to bail your sorry famous ass out of jail, Dana Plato. It pays for more rehab, Courtney Love.
Any waiter at a restaurant with an uber rich celebrity clientele will share his opinion of his customers’ manners. A friend of mind described Sharon Stone having a tantrum at Morton’s because the leaves of her Caesar salad were too big. Or too small. Or something. She let the waiters have it, asked to see the manager. By the time they had made it right she had moved on to something else. He told me of the genuine distress of all the Little People that Miss Stone was so unhappy. I think they may have fired the busboy.
So the big question is “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” The big question is “if you’re so rich then why ain’t you satisfied?”