“Dyavid…Don’t say that word.” (Mom never quite lost that bit of Russian accent.)
“Mom, All I said was shit… (He knew better than to say it correctly.)
He was seven.
As a kid he had memorized Marx… Groucho, that is. His earliest TV moments were more You Bet Your Lifethan Howdy Doody. Groucho had a wisecrack about everything…and everyone. How many times did he watch “The Cocoanuts”, “Horse Feathers”, and “Duck Soup”?He loved Groucho. He imitated him. He was him.
How many parties had Paul been to where he wished he could have said, half joke—half truth, as Groucho did, “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”
How many people did he meet, even as a kid, when the Groucho in his head said, “He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”
Growing up in the Bronx made one bilingual. You spoke English and Street. Street involved lots of cursing. There were no better words to express certain feelings at the right times and right place. The secret was in knowing those right times and right places. Today sociologists call this code switching. We called it, “Don’t let your dad hear you say that shit or he’ll whip your ass.”
Paul’s Black friends all knew how to code switch. The skill went back to slavery.
We watched Jack Benny’s TV butler do it weekly. Benny: “Ohhhh Rochester?”
Rochester: “Yes’m, Mr. Benny.” While thinkin’… “You white, can’t play no fiddle no how, motherfucker!”
Even us far less cool white guys had to learn to “code switch” when in school, at home (usually) and while doing personal appearances at Aunt Fannie’s house because she’d rip you a new one if you cursed.
His early life wasn’t pretty, and he had to deal with it. He learned to fight, talk, and crack jokes. To survive you needed to be a bit Clark Kent and a bit Superman. Paul know that dual personality far earlier than Jekyll and Hyde. You learned to speak and act as Clark Kent in the adult world, but on the street …you had to get in that phone booth.
There, you could be either be Superman with fists or with words. Paul was ok with fists but preferred using words. He became a master of “doin’ the dozens, snappin’, and wisecracking. His Black friends taught him well. He can’t tell you how many times he got out of jams when someone said,
“That’s one funny dude. Let him slide.”
He learned to “lawyer” his friends out of beefs. He even talked a cop down who was pointed a gun at him and his ladder carrying buddies, two of whom were not white, during the 1965 blackout.
“Shit…He thinks we’re 2ndstory guys.”
Paul told the cop the truth. Paul knew, even at 15, how perception altered reality.
“We’re going down into the subway to get people off a stuck express train.”
The cop kept his revolver pointed right at him.
“Damn, don’t believe us? Come with us and help.”
Nothing defused a fight or a cop better than words.
Paul learned that to survive you often had to think one thing and say another. Now this wasn’t the Eddie Haskell kind of fronting. Paul was never that slimy B.S. artist. He hated Haskell types. Still does…
WITH… A… PASSION….
He adopted a George Carlinesque view of the world. By the way…“Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”
“Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist.”
Is it possible to be an optimistic Hobbesian? Or is it a Hobbesian Optimist? Famous for telling us that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”,Hobbes was the pessimist’s pessimist. Paul, on the other hand still thinks himself a cock-eyed optimist, somehow combining his parent’s optimistic views of life. The problem was that each of their lives were failures.
Dad always thought his intelligence and talents, combined with his brilliant schemes would lead him to great successes. NOPE!
Mom always trusted everyone and thought people would always watch her back. Her bosses? NOPE. Dad? NOPE.
Paul’s life balanced his parent’s naïve optimism and Hobbes’s philosophy. Paul didn’t want to think that humankind asbasically “selfish, driven by the hope of personal gain, and a constant seeking of power over others”, or that, “The condition of man… is a condition of war of everyone against everyone…”
He preferred RalphWaldo Emerson’s, “The purpose of life… is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
Paul believed his compassion and work for others as a husband, father, teacher, mentor, and coach would make the world a better place. Paul wanted to believe, like his mom, in the good in people and like his dad, that his intelligence, talents, and abilities would persevere whatever life placed in his path, but his experiences more often negated those lofty thoughts.
Too often, he confronted others less honorable, less compassionate, less curious, less giving, and less thoughtful than he optimistically expected. More and more he found stupidity, cowardice, and arrogance… Idiots
He always sought Lincoln’s “better angels”among Hobbesian “brutes”but was too often disappointed.”He began to think more like many the stand-up comedians who observed life and with a sarcastic, comic, and often snide remark… though rarely did he make these out loud. He knew who he could crack everyone up with those thoughts and with whom he couldn’t.
As he grew up, Paul the idealist found escape in skepticism and in sarcastic humor, even if some others sometimes didn’t approve. He knew his audiences. Over time Paul learned how observe very carefully. He took everything in, things most people never noticed. He had an untrained comedic eye. Long ago he realized, like Carlin,
“Some people have no idea what they’re doing, and a lot of them are really good at it.”
As he grew older, he just saw more and more of it and made it a habit to point it out…for the humor in it. Paul’s sincere, honest to a fault, cordial, and polite, charming Clark Kent often masked the skeptical, sarcastic, ironic, funny, and yes even sometime cynical Superman scenes rolling across his mind’s eye.
Paul became the Master of ceremonies at roasts, formal or not… a guy who provided the punch line in every too serious conversation to lighten it up or move boring ones along. He calls himself a counter punch… liner.
Like Carlin, he liked to“think off center”,although most people didn’t understand his off centered wit. He questioned everything. He believed as a teacherand as a parent, “Don’t just teach your children to read…Teach them to question what they read. Teach them to question everything.”
From his Bronx second grade class on, when he learned about Little Rock, Arkansas, he questioned our society. As a teacher, his kids loved his humorous questioning approach to examining history. He loved making fun of the foolish decisions made by so many. And they loved him for it. History came alive. Barbara Tuchman wrote a famous book, “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam”. Duh, of course! Mel Brooks did “History of the World.”Paul used both in classes.
He took great pleasure in pointing out absurdities as he saw them. He still wonders why others don’t see those things. He never liked to hide truths or conceal them with pretty words. He loved edgy, probing, prodding, poking humor. Bruce and Saul and Carlin. Not Seinfeld.
He thought, like the comedian he often wanted to become, that he had a “duty to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.” Over and over again he saw too much evidence that when you “think of how stupid the average person is” you “realize half of them are stupider than that.”
As Foghorn Leghorn always said…. “It’s a joke, son. A joke.” What choice do you have?