Monday, April 20, 2009

Three men in a boat and the river upset

Jas just called me to cancel today's scheduled Scrabble and Pinochle games because he and Kathy are driving down to Florida a day early. They'll be down at their house in The Villages for the next couple of weeks. I'm imagining that I feel like Butch did when he drew a problematic Canasta hand.

Little did Butch know in the 1960's; but he almost surely coined a phrase that was new to the English language. When playing Canasta with Rose and Mom and Pop he would say, "Three men in a boat and the river upset." When I publish this post that phrase will appear on the web for the first time.

Sam's outrageous nickname for Rose and Butch was "Pruney and Mumbles;" which still makes me, him and Jas laugh on Saturday mornings when we remember it. It may well be the best nickname combination ever invented. Rose was one of those people who wrinkle up amazingly as they age. She was pruney at least twenty years before she died in the 1990's. And Butch, of course, mumbled. That phrase, "pruney and mumbles," had never appeared on the web until I published it in a post last fall.

At Harry's Potato Market in the 1960's Eddie Fight used to say "Smarty eh! Smarty had a party." That phrase, as I've transcribed it, will appear for the first time on the web after I publish this; but after searching around I think Eddie was parrotting a slight modification of the first line of a racist couplet from his youth. If you're interested in that couplet you can find it (where I did) in an online page from a book named Language, Communication & Education published in 1990.

This brave new internet world where one can skip blithely from learning the derivation of "Smarty had a party" to learning the surprisingly long and complex history of "Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe" is something else, something fantastic. And after I publish this it will be able to provide someone with a bit of a sense of the world of Eddie Fight. But it can't bring back the full flavor of a Dairy Queen banana split enjoyed on a hot summer evening by a 14 year old.

Eddie Fight was an interesting character. His face was wrinkled, pruney, like Rose's; but he also had the most amazing cauliflower ears and an interestingly mis-shapen nose. Pop mentioned years after I knew Eddie that his real last name wasn't "Fight." In his youth he had liked to fight in all venues, especially bars; but he never fought very well and he was a Bantamweight who liked to take on Heavyweights. When I first met Eddie he was living in the back of the potato market shed where Lefty used to sleep on the pile of burlap bags until the time he pulled a knife on Patty. Later Harry put Eddie up in the second floor apartment of a small commercial building he owned about a couple of hundred yards down Ridge Pike from the potato market.

I think Harry used to pay Eddie something as well; but he rarely did any work. He might wait on a customer if Patty and I were both busy with other customers; but mostly Eddie sat on an apple crate under the awning with Harry on the long summer evenings and reminisced about old times. Sometimes Gap B joined them. Gap owned Trooper Banana so, like Harry, he was a produce entrepreneur. Gap liked to gamble, and there were several groups of poker players who really, really liked to have Gap in their games; so his schedule only allowed him to come over every once in a while to discuss commodity prices and logistics and high finance with Harry as Eddie listened respectfully.

Patty, who hadn't learned the obvious lesson from the knife incident with Lefty, used to mock Eddie. And Eddie would respond, "Smarty eh. Smarty had a party." Sometimes his fists would clench up when he said that; but Eddie's prime fighting days were mostly over by that time; and anyway, Patty was the son of his padrone, so it would have been very bad form for Eddie to take a poke at him. Not that Patty didn't often deserve a poke.

Along about 9:30 or so Harry would give us the word to close up the Potato Market and Patty and I would cover up the watermelons and tomatoes and cantaloupes and other stuff with tarps while Harry would go back and get Kingy, and later Major, to set up for guard duty. You didn't want to get within reach of Kingy or Major's chain once they were on post for the night.

John S used to love riding his bike recklessly right along the perimeter of the beaten earth area where Kingy spent his mostly lazy days, just to provide him with a little thrill. John got a big kick out of Kingy's impotent fury when he did that. Until one day when he skidded and fell over the wrong way, into the beaten earth area. It was amazing how many puncture wounds Kingy managed to inflict before John could scramble out of reach.

Often, on especially warm nights, after we closed up the Potato Market, Patty would drive me down to pick up his cousins, Joe A and Butchy D, and we would go over to Saint Gabes home for bad boys to play water basketball. Bold as brass, Patty would walk into the boiler room and turn on the pool lights when we arrived. Mostly the gate to the pool was unlocked so getting in was no problem; but if it wasn't unlocked we would scale the fence. The irony of us sneaking into a detention center completely escaped me at the time. Patty said it was OK as long as we were quiet, so it was OK.

We would play water basketball until one of the brothers noticed the lights or the din we were making and came down to tell us we had to leave. Sometimes the brother would officiously make us line up against the fence and give us a short lecture. Patty was always very respectful of the brothers and very contrite; but sometimes we would wait in the car for a few minutes until the brother had returned to the dormitory if Patty felt the game had been cut too short. Once the coast was clear he would turn on the lights again and we would return to the pool. Even I knew that immediately returning to the scene of the crime was a bad idea, and Joe A used to be terrified; but we never got caught twice on the same evening so Patty evidently had the situation figured right. He later became a lawyer with the Public Defender's office.

After our game, usually about 11:00, our toes hurting and oozing a little blood from pushing off against the rough pool bottom, Patty would take us to Dairy Queen for a banana split which we would eat as we tooled around in Harry's old Chevy before dropping off Butchy D in Bridgeport and Joe A in Jeffersonville.

Those days are long gone and a present day Dairy Queen banana split is merely the palest shadow of what it was then, so Eddie with the cauliflower ears has the last laugh after all and Butch's sentiment says it all.

Smarty eh. Smarty had a party.

Three men in a boat and the river upset.

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