Thursday, 24 April 2014

'I Don't Get It'

It’s 5am in the airport. I’m first through security. Fluorescent lights crackle and fizz into bilious life. A cleaner trundles dolefully across the lino floor, trailing a mop and bucket. Daytime TV theme tune music, all saxophones and claves, oozes out of some speaker somewhere, as the hordes behind me struggle back into shoes, suck in bellies and do up belts, as though post-coitally.
I survey my food options, which are limited. It’s a choice between Dunkin’ Donuts and a café whose name I don’t recognise. I select the café, on the basis that it is not Dunkin’ Donuts. I anticipate that many of my fellow travellers, many of whom are wearing Boston Marathon Finisher t-shirts, will make the same decision. There’s nobody else in there yet, so I go right to the top of the queue to order. I squint at the wall-mounted menu, stared at with disapproval by the waiting phalanx of bleary-eyed sandwich makers.
The menu proudly announces the speciality of the house: the ‘squagel’. A large variety of these squagels is on offer, in various savoury and sweet configurations. A squagel is, one of the sandwich drones intones flatly, ‘like a bagel, but square’. I wonder if the shape is thought to impart some characteristic qualitative aspect to the gustatory experience. If so, perhaps one can access, through taste, the property of squareness, long thought to be a property confined to the spatial senses of sight and touch. Or it could be that the concept of ‘square’, activated by visual experience, cognitively penetrates the gustatory experience of the baked good. I choose not to conduct empirical tests of this set of hypotheses, deciding, after some deliberation, to eschew the squagel in favour of oatmeal. A drone hands it to me, wordlessly. It comes in a reassuringly round container.
Dimly concerned by the fact that I have just not only verbally, but also internally, referred to porridge as ‘oatmeal’, I proceed to the coffee counter to face my next challenge. I ask for a coffee that contains two shots of espresso and a small amount of hot water, in their smallest take-away cup. The barista frowns, before barking something like ‘Venti grande Americano tall filter coffee with room to go espresso creamer?’ Frightened, and unwilling to admit to the extent of my incomprehension, I nod furiously, and am, after a minute or so, presented with an enormous cup of lukewarm bilge. It’s too early to have an argument about it. Resigned, I retreat to the seating area.
Just next door to the squagel outlet, the entire baggage security line has reformed, airside, at Dunkin’ Donuts.
I sit down to eat my breakfast. A family occupies the table next to me. Dad, mom, a boy of around ten and his grandmother. The dad is telling jokes.
‘So, a horse walks into a bar, and the bartender says, “why the long face?”’
There is silence at the table.
The dad looks around at his family. ‘Because horses have long faces,’ he explains.
The boy regards his father warily, looks at his grandmother for help. ‘I don’t get it,’ he mutters.
‘Well,’ says grandma, ‘saying somebody has a long face is a way of saying they’re upset. You know, maybe they’re angry about something, or sad. So it kind of looks like they have a long face. Like this.’ She contorts her face into an exaggerated masque of woe.
‘Right,’ dad chimes in. ‘So, asking someone, “why the long face”, is like saying, what happened? Everything okay?’
The boy frowns, considering the matter. ‘But why is the horse sad?’
‘Well, I don’t know,’ says the dad. ‘I mean, wait, no, the horse isn’t sad. Probably. Like, the horse actually has a long face, because he’s a horse, but you know, maybe the bartender thinks he’s sad about something too, or something. Because he has a long face.’
The boy is motionless, breakfast forgotten, as he stares at his father in mute incomprehension.
‘And that’s why it’s funny,’ says the dad, doubtfully.
‘Oh.’ The boy shakes his head. He takes a slurp of his Coke.
‘Okay, I got another one,’ says the dad. ‘This bear walks into a bar, and goes, can I have…’
He stops, dramatically. His son narrows his eyes. The mom licks her index finger and turns the page in her magazine. Dad looks at them all archly.
‘Can I have… a beer?’ he continues. ‘And the bartender goes, “why the big pause?”’
More silence. The kid pushes his straw around in the ice cubes at the bottom of his drink, looks down at the table, despondent.
‘Oh, come on,’ says the dad. ‘He’s a bear. Big paws!’ He tucks his chin into his neck, widens his eyes, lowers his brow. Waves his hands around in front of his face. ‘Big paws,’ he booms. ‘Get it?’
Mom checks her watch. ‘We should really get moving, you guys. They’re boarding soon.’
‘All right, one more.’ Mom and son exchange a look.
‘A piece of string walks into a bar. Goes up to the bartender, but the bartender says, hey, we don’t serve your kind around here. So the piece of string leaves. Goes outside, ties himself into a knot, goes back in. The bartender says, wait a minute, aren’t you the guy that was in here a minute ago? And the piece of string goes, “no, I’m afraid not.”’
A brief moment of silence. The dad is frozen in anticipation, leaning toward his son slightly. His face begins to fall. And then, the child explodes with laughter. Coke sprays from various facial orifices in a bubbling fountain of mirth. Grandma dabs her front with a napkin, beaming.
‘A frayed knot!’ The child is still giggling, looking at his father with an expression of considerable relief. ‘That’s really funny, Dad.’
‘Well, finally,’ says the dad. ‘Jeez. I was beginning to think I wasn’t funny.’

The mom puts her palm flat down on her magazine. Frowns at her husband.
‘Wait, what?’ she says. ‘I don’t get it.’

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Sunday Matinée

Forty-five minutes to go.
Permed grey heads, immobile though their bearers move, shrubs in a frosty garden. Bald patches, risen bravely above the tree-line. Brassy halos of fuzz radiating from the orange-tinted scalps they barely conceal. Obedient blonde bobs, tucked behind one ear. Poker straight platinum waterfalls, tossed over shoulders. Grey ponytails, protruding from vaguely arty-looking middle-aged men with inventive facial hair.
Shoes shuffle in the direction of the auditorium. Wingtips. Oxfords. Sensible black leather sandals with low heels and small peep-toes, barely-black feet safely encased within. Bulging insteps and a cane, moving slowly, one-two-three. A pair of strappy gold stilettos stomps past, followed nervously by tottering red platforms. An unrepentant pair of trainers squelches doggedly in pursuit.
Tweed blazers. Double-breasted jackets with brassy buttons. Twin-sets. Some jaunty bow-ties, sported with panache by jolly octogenarians. The occasional daring of a bolo tie. Some of the more adventurous grey perms wear diaphanous dresses with multiple hemlines, which give the ladies in question the appearance of having been swathed in an array of expensive tablecloths. One across the shoulder, one around the midriff, there, are you quite covered, we’ll add one more, here, like so. Such an interesting effect. Hold it in place with an interesting brooch. And let’s drape an interesting silk scarf over the top – more draping, yes! – drape it interestingly over your shoulder, there; the more garish the better, and of course it must have an ethnic print.
Thirty minutes til curtain-up. The café is doing a roaring trade. A middle-aged couple eats lunch in silence. They don’t look at each other. Her lipsticked maw devours a chicken and pesto panini, putting me suddenly, horribly, in mind of Goya’s Saturn. The man forks pasta furiously into his mouth, moustache wobbling as he chews. He checks his watch. Twenty-five minutes to go.
The gift store is heaving with men in sports jackets and slacks, in that voluminous, American golfing-dad cut. Waistbands slant crotch-wards beneath prodigious paunches; sharp trouser-creases slump, defeated, on tasseled loafers. Mobile phone cases on belts, keys jingling in pockets. They butt through the merchandise like tug-boats, moving slowly, nosing their way cautiously around the opera DVDs. One has berthed himself beside the sale rack, unmoors himself again, points his prow at the cash register. Another holds a ‘Rheingold’ t-shirt up to his front speculatively, returns it to the rail, hunts for a larger size.
Twenty minutes to go. A worried-looking woman in a mid-calf-length floral dress hovers by the ‘Music for children’ section. Seizes ‘Baby Needs Bach’, in a last-ditch attempt to rescue her grandchildren from their steady decline – oh, she’s sure of it; the amount of television those toddlers watch is a scandal; they even have their own iPads – into the ignominious pits of philistinism. ‘For grandparents who refuse to leave all their hard-earned cash to uncultured swine’, it could be subtitled, but isn’t. Baby Needs Beethoven, as well, according to another title on display.
I check, but it seems that Baby Doesn’t Need Schoenberg.
Fifteen minutes to go. Wine glasses are drained. I am borne to my seat on a tide of murmuring punters, up endless flights of stairs, up, up again, all the way up, to the very back of the auditorium, the nose-bleed seats, where the paupers squint at the stage. We are passers-by gazing longingly into a softly-lit restaurant from a cold winter street. I look at my neighbour’s binoculars with envy, peer down at the orchestra. Is that a man or a woman? I am seated in the very last row, brick at my back, horrifying emptiness in front. Pasted to the wall of a grain silo, I am helpless, held in place by trumpet blasts and the grace of God.
The orchestra swirls in its pre-curtain cacophony. The crowd scurries up and down steps, rhubarbing excitedly, shuffling into their appointed seats, step-stop, step-stop. Here comes another. Do I stand or can I sit? I’ll sit. I can’t set a precedent of standing up every time someone comes along: what am I, some kind of athlete? I’ll just do the awkward thing with my knees that everyone does in theatres, pull them as far in to the left as I possibly can, it’s a bit uncomfortable. No, damn it, it’s no use, he’ll never fit, the space is too small, he’ll have to squat over me, his arse will be in my face, he’ll end up sitting in my lap, I’ll have to get up, but he’s very close now, I’m surely going to end up touching him if I get up, oh God, but there’s nothing for it only to rise, unfortunate pelvic thrust as the seat folds up behind me, I put my hand on the seat back for support, I wonder if this is some kind of yoga pose, he shuffles past, there goes his rump, TOMMY HILFIGER in scrolling marquee, oh Jesus, must not touch it by accident, I look away determinedly, rapt at the sight of the exit sign, step-stop, sorry, excuse me, step-stop, and he’s gone. Thank Christ. I sit down again.
The lights dim. The crowd falls silent. Showtime.