Language is what makes us better than apes. One of the things, anyway. And when language goes wrong, when we say the wrong thing or we mishear what is said, it can teach us something about who we are. And it can make us laugh. I have two referential misfires that occurred in my recent past that can still get me chuckling to myself. Here is one of them. The other next time.
It was a Monday morning in February, I believe. The year was 1991, I think. I was working for the book publishing division of a prominent science publishing company. They were located on Madison Avenue in New York and at the time I was living at a suburban apartment complex in New Jersey. I had been working for this company for around two years and the commute was a killer. If I drove to and from the Park and Ride lot in North Bergen during regular rush hours, my combined trip lasted as much as three to five hours, a huge chunk of daily life. I had recently been promoted and needed to put in long hours to keep things hopping.
I decided that, in order to beat traffic and to give myself the office time I really needed to get everything in order, I would arrive at the Park and Ride depot for the first bus into the city, which was 6:00 AM. Then I’d leave the office around 8:00 PM and catch the 8:30 bus back to North Bergen.
So it was a Monday morning in the middle of winter. I got up around 4:30, shaved and showered in a foul mood and left the apartment building on my way to my truck, which was parked in the lot outside. It turned out it had been sleeting all night and there were huge patches of black ice lurking on all the paved surfaces. The building superintendent was still sleeping and had not put down any sand or salt. The moment I left the sidewalk and stepped into the lot, I slipped and bashed my left knee painfully onto the asphalt. Man, it hurt! I was seeing stars! Nothing seemed seriously amiss, except for the throbbing pain, so I got into my truck and hot-foot-it down Route 23 and eventually to North Bergen.
I had worked in the city in 1975-76, then went to New York University, and now had made the commute for several years to Madison Avenue. I had used the Park and Ride lot off and on during all these times. At the entrance to the lot was a booth where you paid your $6 and received the round-trip bus ticket from the guy that was manning the post. Now over the years there was a fellow who had worked there since ancient times and I had gotten on a familiar basis with him.
Because I always tried to be creative in my life, and thought spontaneity was a good thing, I made a point of trying never to say the same thing to the ticket booth guy when we met every day. Because of the icy conditions that morning I arrived right at 6:00. I wanted to explain to him what had happened to me that morning, but I guess I was tired and it came out all wrong.
I greeted him with:
“Hey, I just took a dump in the parking lot!”
Of course, it should have been:
“Hey, I just took a spill in the parking lot back home. I hurt my knee!”
Anyway, the bus was there and was just about to leave. He gave me my ticket and gave me a look that said:
“Well, don’t expect me to clean it up!”
There was no time to explain. I took the ticket in silence, raced the truck to a parking slot and got on the bus just in time. After that, he always looked at me like I was nuts, and I limited my greetings to “good morning,” robotically, predictably and safely.
I got into Manhattan about 6:10. Walking the empty streets to 27th and Madison, the steam emitting from the Con Edison conduits, the pavements shiny with wet and ice and multi-yellow with the reflection of streetlights, it occurred to me in a kind of revelation just how much I hated my life. All my life’s energy was being sapped by the commute, the daily grind. There was nothing left. I didn’t have a life at all. And my spontaneity with the poor guy at the booth was about the only thing creative I had left in me.
At the same time my referential misfire was funny as hell to me and so at the same time I laughed uproariously while walking down Madison Avenue around 6:30 that morning, the madman of Manhattan!
That morning and in days following, I resolved to do something about the life I was living.
It took many years to get back to where I should have been in 1991. And I still remember that morning when I have doubts of what I’ve made for myself since then. I compare now with that “dump” and feel much better. The pain in my knee comes back to me every so often. I can’t play softball anymore. But I have my life back.