Tuesday, May 13, 2008

No Starch in the Dhoti, S'il vous plait.

S.J. Perelman was a playwright, author, wit, bon vivant and all around good sport. He wrote the screenplays to "Horse Feathers", "Monkey Business" and the Academy Award winning script to "Around the World in Eighty Days" (the real one), after all. He regularly cavorted with the Marx Brothers.

He also wrote a ton of little throwaway pieces, later collected into various volumes of his wit and wisdom, one of which bore the title, above.

He wrote it as the result of a phrase he'd read in an article in the New Yorker which went, "the late Pandit Motilal Nehru - who sent his laundry to Paris - the young Jawaharlal's British nurse, etc., etc."

I mean, how could he have resisted? I've read the entire piece. It's actually a faux exchange of increasingly heated letters between Nehru and his "blanchisseur" in Paris in which he complains, bitterly, about the over-bleaching, over-beating and over-starching of his garments, to the point where they simply fall apart in shreds the moment he unboxes them upon the end of their 9,000 mile round trip to the City of Lights from India. It ends with him threatening lawsuits and bodily harm to the unflappable Frenchman, who clearly couldn't care less about the opinions of some insignificant brown man from some obviously uncivilized part of the World.

The piece appears in a collection of Perelman's works entitled, "Under the Spreading Atrophy - or The Road to Milltown."

I had acquired the book as a teenager, totally by accident of course because it was a sure-fire bet that nobody in MY family had ever heard of, let alone read, anything by Perelman -- or anybody else above the level of Stan Lee, probably while browsing through some bookstore in Philadelphia.

I used to lie in bed at night and read parts of it, laughing out loud to myself -- and amazing myself in the process over how much I seemed to inately "get" the sophistication of some of the humor. I knew, then, that someday the Mother Ship would return and carry me off to be with my "own people" who had clearly abandoned me to my fate with these Earthlings years before.

I started to understand the concept of the "double-entendre" and started to "get" hyperbole, irony and sarcasm. I saw how words could heal... or hurt... as needed. I began to practice on the people around me.

Alas, that was like shooting fish in a barrel because they hadn't a clue as to what I was talking about and I have NO DOUBT that I appeared as alien to them as they, in turn, seemed to me.

But through it all, the service years, college and in various homes and cities over the years, I've kept that little yellowed volume of the writings of S.J. Perelman.

The little Irish Catholic kid grew up wanting nothing more than to be a very funny Jewish man.

I wanted to be anything other than what I was. One of "those people."

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