Like most of us I consider myself to be a witty person. This may or may not be an accurate self-evaluation, but I suppose that’s exactly what makes me able to introduce that sentence with the phrase, “Like most of us.”
I like to think of myself as reasonably apt with the repartee. My humor, such as I find it amusing to myself, tends to consist of on-the-spot rejoinders, and I believe that I can jab and jest and joke with the best bearers of bon mots, bantering and bartering in badinage and persiflage.
I’ll grant that I’m no Oscar Wilde, the English playwright who once complained that he was so clever he could understand little of what he said. But then, as the man himself also said, “Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit,” and with that I can only hope to have successfully extolled myself.
I was in line earlier today at the grocery store. I said hello to the woman behind the counter and watched patiently as she scanned my items. She grabbed a package and swung its thick lined bars across the red scanner mounted in the counter. Nothing happened. She did it again, and still nothing. She passed it past the scanner a few more times then looked up at me and said, “These eggs won’t scan.”
“They’re probably scared of that big red laser. I would be. Most likely it’s because they’re chicken,” I replied with a playful smile.
I thought that perhaps she hadn’t heard me and happily repeated what I believed to be my clever witticism. This didn’t clarify matters, and she cocked her head and looked confusedly across the counter.
By this point the woman in line behind me had nosed her way into the conversation. She asked the checkout gal what I’d said. Why she asked the checkout gal and not me directly is a concern for another time. Regardless, they both looked at me, confused and expectant.
I attempted to explicate my witticism, which I quickly realized is a fool’s errand. In the battle for their laughter I began with the supreme confidence of Patton and ended with the despondency of Lee at Appomattox.
“I said that they wouldn’t scan because they’re chicken. Because they’re eggs. They’re eggs that…, well they, they come from chicken, right, and I was making a play on their being scared of the scanner. Scared because… because they’re eggs… from a chicken. It was…, it was a pun…?”
The two women looked at one another with raised eyebrows. They both then looked at me with raised eyebrows. I raised my palms in the international gesture of Oh come on, but neither’s expression changed. I thought of arguing further, of presenting my case with greater stridency and repetition, but managed to stuff down my exasperation. Defeated, I sighed, nodded a tight-lipped smile and swiped my credit card.
A few minutes later my eggs and I were seated on the bus, both of us mired in frustration and mentally cursing the two women. A man and woman entered and sat in the two seats directly before mine. They were both rather scruffy: she was the sort of person who was probably in her early 40’s but whose worn, leathery skin made her look well into her 60’s. Her companion was a broad-shouldered man wearing a very used, heavy wool coat and a white Seahawks cap.
At the next stop a man got on the bus and stumbled down the aisle. As he neared the couple he called out to the man seated before me, Hey buddy, what are you doing here? Clearly they knew one another, and the newcomer stopped beside their seat. He nodded politely to the woman and played slappy-hands with the man in the way I’ve seen fraternity brothers engage one another at reunion mixers. After a moment the seated man said, Go sit down Joe, get out of here.
The buses in Seattle are designed like buses pretty much everywhere: there’s a large main aisle runs the length and there are two seats located on either side. Playfully, Joe replied, I’ll sit down alright, slide over, and jokingly chucked the seated man on the shoulder and pretended that he would squeeze into the seats with them.
The two men played another quick round of slappy-hands before Joe continued down the aisle and took a seat a few rows back. And this is when the woman, for whom Joe’s jest apparently had finally been metabolized, lost her shit.
She unleashed the sort of shrill cackling hoot that should have guided the aural casting of Cruella DeVil. She slapped first her knee then her man’s. “Slide over” she howled, “He said ‘slide over'”. She rocked and jittered and trembled in her seat like an over-caffeinated six-year-old. Apparently her laughter was infectious because soon her man was teary-eyed beside her, looking over his shoulder and saying aloud, “That Joe! That Joe!”
My eggs and I sat behind them. We looked back at Joe. We looked at the couple. We thought about our failed grocery store witticism and bemoaned the terrible, though successful, humor we’d just witnessed. We both thought again of Wilde and wondered, as he did, why we’d been born with such contemporaries.