BY DAVID H.
About a month ago, I began wondering what the opposite of “respectively” is.
“I like Barack Obama and John Edwards, respectively.” But what if you named them out of order? What choice do you have? I tried to come up with an answer a few months ago when Amy proposed that for our weekly date night, rather than go out for dinner or movies, we enroll in a eight-week class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education . Having gone through a preliminary narrowing down process, she gave me the three most interesting options.
“‘Stories From Life,’ which is like a memoir-writing class. ‘Humorous Writing,’ and ‘Introduction to Screenwriting.’ What sounds the best?”
“The first and second, irrespectively.”
“It’s like, the oppositive of “respectively,” you know?”
“So what do you want to do?”
And so we enrolled. Our first class was on Wednesday. In the weeks leading up to this inaugural class, I somehow failed to think about what became very evident in the minutes leading up to class actually starting: in a humorous writing class, everyone thinks he’s hilarious. I listened as folks traded quips, measuring each other up, making their early judgements about whose writing could possibly measure up to their own. It was, perhaps, the most un-funny 15 minutes of my life.
As class began, I couldn’t help but notice that out new professor was drinking a creamy, caramel-colored liquid from a liquor bottle. Sensing my and others’ confusion, he assured us it was just coffee, but he likes to use the bottle because it’s “almost exactly a cup.”
“Now, are there any folks in here not registered for the class?” the professor began, but interrupting any possible answer was a plump lady in her mid-30s with a jovial face, bright red cheeks and glasses. Just looking at her, one could tell she couldn’t wait; for what, I didn’t know, but her eagerness was remarkably evident nevertheless. Evident despite the fact that she had just walked into a completely packed classroom late, with only one vacant chair, situated on the complete opposite side of the room, right next to the teacher, and with no walking room to really maneuver in that direction. After an uncomfortably noisy minute, the woman plops into her new chair and begins listening rapturously to the conversation at hand, that of whether anyone was not registered.
One man spoke up. “You know, I actually might not be. I realized right when I was parking that I never actually got a confirmation email.” We looked back to the teacher, but another voice cut in first — it was the tardy woman.
“IT’S FUNNY YOU SHOULD MENTION PARKING! I COULDN’T FIND A PARKING SPOT ANYWHERE! I WAS JUST DRIVING AROUND, LOOKING AND LOOKING…”
Never have I been witness to a more awkward and forced conversation segue. Weren’t we trying to have a legitimate, business conversation? Was this really the best time to go into a bad stand-up routine? She continued.
“I FINALLY SAW ONE SPOT, BUT IT WAS JUST A HUGE MOUND OF SNOW!!! BUT I THOUGHT, ‘I’M GONNA GO FOR THIS!’
At this point, the teacher decided he might try to break up the story, perhaps try to catch her off guard or reclaim some territory. “You must have an SUV or some sort of…”
“NO! I DRIVE A PRISM!!! AND I TRIED TO GET UP THIS HUGE MOUND OF SNOW! I COULDN’T BELIEVE IT!!!”
All the meanwhile, she was laughing her way through the story, interrupting herself several times for poorly timed fits of it. Amy and I, and every one of the other 14 students were looking around, confused and…sad. Why had we thought that signing up for a class that encourages people to think they are funny would ever be a good idea? I believe the woman finally tailed off into what must have been her fifth laughter eruption, giving the professor a chance to get back to the man’s concern about his lack of a confirmation email.
“Okay, sir, what’s your name? I’ll check my list.”
“Steve Nash.” I could tell this wasn’t a joke. You could sense he was almost embarrassed to share a name with an NBA star. I didn’t think it was funny; they are both, first name and last, fairly common names, but I heard folks around me bristling with anticipation of the joke that must surely follow. Thankfully, no one took the bait. Steve Nash was, indeed, not on the list. The professor allowed him to stay, though, and class officially began.
After some discussion of what we all did, and why we had enrolled in this class (something I was beginning to question myself), the professor put on a CD of Woody Allen’s early stand-up career. The first bit was pretty good, but a bit too “current events” for us to follow 30 years later. The second bit was much more anecdotal, a bit fantastical, and much funnier. After the bit concluded, he stopped the CD and looked back to his class of humorists.
“Why was the second story funnier?”
After talking about it, we were led to understand that it was because of it’s more anecdotal nature, and that Allen also made jumps from realistic to fantasy. At this point, the professor made a horrible mistake: he brought up the snow mound story again, hazarding another run-in with the woman with the hopes of making a close-to-home comparison for us.
“For instance, when Carrie was looking for a parking spot…” She lit up, and he continued, “she sees the mound, and there was some fantasy disconnect in thinking she could drive her Prism on top of it.”
“I DIDN’T JUST THINK I COULD! I TRIED TO DRIVE UP IT!” she bellowed, laughing.
“Exactly, there’s something not realistic in that thought process…”
“BUT I TRIED TO DO IT!!! I COULDN’T BELIEVE IT!!”
We were all wondering if this had an ending other than listening to her go on about this parking spot when she concluded with this, indicating the professor’s liquor bottle:
“AND I DON’T EVEN DRINK COFFEE!!! I DRINK TEA!!!”
…14 people stared at her, trying to make any loose connection we could with what she had just said and reality. The professor tried to offer her a chance at making a true conclusion with his follow-up prompt:
“And yet…?” But she just kept smiling at him, disbelieving of her own wit. The class moved on without her. The teacher told us our first assignment, due next week, would be a 450-word anecdote written in the present-tense, a verb tense he assured us repeatedly, “made for an interesting little exercise.” To illustrate how long 450 words is, I suppose, our teacher proceeded to a few of his own pieces, each of which, he explained, was about his experiences living in Cambridge in the 70s and 80s. His first piece was about working at a sandwich shop in Harvard Square. I’ll attempt to paraphrase the story:
“I worked in a great sandwich shop through college. After our shifts we were allowed to take sandwiches home to eat, which was a helpful thing for a young college student. One day I made myself a sandwich to take home — this really nice ham and cheese wrap.
“My friend and I are cutting through the Square when we pass the local homeless woman. We see her all the time, she asks for money, sometimes you give it when you have it, sometimes you don’t. But you feel bad for her, seeing her out there all the time. So I’m carrying my sandwich, I see her, and when she asks me if I have any money, I reply, ‘No, but I have this great sandwich and I’d be glad to give it to you.’
“‘What kind of sandwich is it?’ she replied. I told her it was a delicious ham and cheese sandwich.
“‘No thanks,’ she said quickly. ‘I’m a vegetarian.”
Beat. A little polite laughter.
It was his response to the laughter that made me realize that my teacher has a kind of tic. He feels the need to make a punchline-punchline. With the scattered chuckles he received, the professor throws up his arms in a “Who, me?” kind of pose and declares, “That was Cambridge in the 70s!” A guy to my right mutters his approval in response, “That’s good. That was really good.” That precise scene played out three times in all. Awkward laughing, Punchline-to-the-Punchline, and a random guy’s subtle approval. One more example:
“On a excursion to Shipley’s, my friends and I sat down for a home-cooked meal. As college students, there was little else better than good food at a good price. Our waitress, Shirley, a stout, grumpy looking woman eventually made her way to our table.
“‘What’ll ya’ have?’ she demanded.
“‘Well, I’d like a slice of pie.’ I confidently stated. But her answer came slow and grumbly.
“‘NO. PIE.’ I could have sworn I’d seen pie on the menu before. I asked if she was sure, that I’d even had it here…
“‘NO. PIE.’ I sheepishly ordered onion rings.
“At the end of our meal, we went to the register to pay, and there I saw it. A huge display of 4 pies in a plastic case. I just kept staring, in shock at my waitress’ claim and obvious lying. I finally looked up, and there was Shirley, staring right back at me.
“All right, ya caught me! What kind of pie d’ya want?” In my shock, I could only mutter a single word:
“That was Cambridge in the 70s!“
“That was good. That was good.”
Class finally ended, I said my goodbye to Steve Nash, and Amy and I walked out the door. I kept my eyes open on the walk to our car, hopeful that I might see the snowmound that Carrie had wanted to park on, picturing a tiny car parked comically on top of a 70-foot cliff, teetering impossibly on top of the precipice. Only that sort of scene could explain her behavior that night. We got to the car empty-handed, however, and began driving away, trying to figure out if we were disappointed with or excited by the new class. I don’t think our conversation ever reached a conclusion.
And I don’t even drink coffee.
I’m including my first assignment below. Remember, it was bound to 450 words and had to be in the present-tense, which I feel did NOT make for an interesting little exercise. Also, I totally stole this story from a co-worker.