According to Yiddish tradition, the definition of a fool is someone who talks too much.
Last week I was reminded of this when speaking to my brother. Our conversation had focused on our relationships to young people. Of course, "young" is a relative term, so at this point it's anyone from 40 on down, but mostly we were referring to the really young - teenagers and below.
To our credit, we didn't lapse into that same sad old tired "they just ain't half the kids we were" riff. But we admitted they're somehow different - the only problem is figuring what that "somehow" is.
"All I know is I've had more of my students call me by my first name this year than in the previous thirty-five," I said.
"Yeah, I guess they're more informal," my brother said, "but some of them are real formal too."
"I dunno how many 'some' is, but it seems darn few to me," I said. "All I know is when we were kids, we sure didn't call adults - any adults - by first name."
"No, we didn't," he said. "But just because we were more formal with old people didn't mean we actually respected their opinions."
"Maybe not, but I always listened to them," I said. "I thought it was expected of me."
"Yeah," he said. "And that's the problem now."
"We listened to older people because we were supposed to, so in turn they always thought they were supposed to share their wisdom with us."
"So how's that a problem?"
"Well, it wasn't then, but it is now," he said. "Because now that we're the old kockers, we think young people want to listen to our wisdom."
"You mean they don't?" I said, my sarcasm evident.
"Who knows?" he said. "Some may. But I don't count on it. Which is why I'm careful about sharing stuff with them. All I can think of is me rambling on about the glorious summer of '62 to some kid who thinks I'm talking about the summer of 1862."
"Exactly how I feel," I said. "Which is why I try not to oppress America's Future with endless prattling about the trash that's stashed in the cobwebbed corners of my memory banks."
What I didn't tell him, however, is it's not oppressing kids that I'm most concerned with. Hey, if they're gonna get though this mess we call Life, they're gonna get oppressed plenty and they darn well better get used to it.
No, what I can't handle is purely egotistical - namely being seen as just one more pathetic creep with a terminal case of BOPS (Babbling Old Poop Syndrome).
And whenever I think of BOPS, I think of Jack Hughes.
He was a gazeekus born around the turn of the century who was originally from NYC, came here to cure from TB in the '20s and stayed afterwards. He was often wandering the streets, coming from this place or that (back in my youth, there were lots and lots of places to hang out - from hotel lobbies to restaurants, from diners to the pool hall, from saloons to drugstore lunch counters). Given my naturally sunny disposition and loquacious nature, at some point we started talking. It was a colossal mistake.
He was one of those viejos fartos who couldn't tell a story if his life depended on itbut unfortunately he told stories. Plus of course he'd been everywhere and done everything. He drank with Babe Ruth, gambled with Legs Diamond, flirted with Lillan Gish. For all I know he was telling the truth, but he did it so badly, who cared.
Being a boxing history buff, I once mentioned some old-time pug. Of course he knew them all and had sparred with some of the bigger names.
"Yeah," he said, "I had a pretty good record in the ring. Went by the name of Special Delivery Hughes."
My boon companion Ralph Carlson was with me at the time and when we got out of earshot he said, "They called him Special Delivery all right, 'cause after each fight that's how they hadda send him to the hospital."
So it's my fear of BOPS that I hope will keep me in line. Unfortunately, fear alone never keeps anyone in line, and here's the perfect example.
I was sitting in my weekend office, the Blue Moon, when in came Mike Ryan and his son Killian. After we exchanged hellos, I noticed the picture on Killian's T-shirt.
"Hey," I said, pointing at it, "you know who that is?'
"Yeah," said Killian. "A boxer."
"A boxer?" I said. "No, m'boy that's not merely a boxer - that's the great John L. Sullivan."
"Oh," said Killian.
Clearly, to him, John L. Sullivan was just a boxer, and I knew that. I also knew the smartest thing for me would've been to just end the conversation. But unfortunately, I was struck with a sudden attack of BOPS.
"Yes, yes," I said. "Why, in his day, that man was what Mohammed Ali was in mine. In fact, his career straddled two eras. He fought the last bare knuckle heavyweight championship and the first heavyweight championship with gloves, Marquis of Queensbury rules, as it was known. Lost to James J. Corbett in New Orleans, sometime around the turn of the century."
Killian nodded politely, and glanced first at his dad, then at the exit.
I kept yakking on.
"He was known as the Boston Strong Boy, came from Boston, ya see. After he quit boxing, he opened a saloon, and after that, he went on a lecture tour, became a champion for temperance."
Now I caught Mike glancing at the exit. Obviously, when it came to boring the bejammers out of Ryan, pere et fils, I was batting two for two.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the waitress ask Mike if he wanted a table. He shook his head and in sotto voce said he'd take his order to go. I heard that, which indeed was a hint for me to shut up, but like the wide Missouri in the midst of a springtime flood, I kept running on anyway.
"Oh yeah, I almost forgot," I said with a quick snap of the fingers and shake of the head. "Long johns - you know what they are, right?"
Poor trapped Killian did the only thing he could - he nodded.
"Yeah, well, there's no way to prove it, but according to legend, long johns were named after John L. Sullivan because he trained in an outfit that looked like them."
Then the waitress said to Mike, "So, do you know our specials today?"
Specials today? Specials today?
Suddenly it hit me. Not specials today but Special Delivery. As in Special Delivery Hughes. As in that's exactly who I was acting like at that moment - some old geek, lost in time, lost in space, talking as fast (and as understandably) as a tobacco auctioneer to the Ultimate Innocent Bystander.
I was overcome - first by shock, then by guilt, then by shame.
And then I did the only thing I could - said a quick goodbye to Mike and Kilian and took off.
To my knowledge, in Yiddish there's no synonym for "dope." Then again, with the definition of "fool," there's no need for one either.