Monday, July 04, 2005

Report: Spitting in face of Christ reaches all-time high in Mississauga

Back to work today after a week's vacation in San Andreas, and I've already rediscovered one of the joys of commuting via Mississauga Transit's public transportation system: the chance to spend quality time in the company of the batshit insane.

Today's specimen was sitting in the middle of the bus, which goes against the old rule I've heard about that being the safest place in which to sit because all the friendly psychotics sit as close as possible to the driver while the unfriendly ones sit as far way as possible. He looked a bit like Black Jacques Shellac, the bad-tempered lumberjack from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, though he obviously wasn't a good French Canadian Catholic, as he had the quirk of repeatedly expectorating "I spitinthefaceofChrist! Ptuh!" He chanted this several dozen times in the exact same William-Shatner-meets-the-Iron-Sheik intonation. The woman sitting in front of him eventually got up and moved. I didn't see any actual spittle flying, but you can't say it wasn't still a wise move on her part.

I never won any Sunday school attendance awards, but after a while even I started to get cheesed off at the disrespect he was showing his fellow passengers. A mental case like this clearly ought to have been in some kind of hospital, and part of me was fixing to put him in one. However, unless you're planning on the next day's headline reading LOCAL MAN BEATS LUNATIC TO DEATH or LUNATIC BEATS LOCAL MAN TO DEATH or -- quite possibly, considering the complete lack of common sense involved in getting into an altercation here -- LOCAL LUNATIC BEATS LUNATIC TO DEATH, there's just no point in making matters worse by trying to shut a guy like this up. Even making a snide comment isn't a good idea.

L'esprit de l'escalier -- or literally "staircase wit"-- is a French phrase referring to the clever things to say that one inevitably thinks when it is too late, such as a cutting, Dorothy Parkeresque retort to an earlier jibe that suddenly occurs to one only when he is on the staircase, leaving the party. An example in my case might be to tell the guy on the bus, "Okay. We all get it. Nobody likes Christ. Now knock it off!" which only now strikes me as being kind of a funny thing to say in the circumstances, if only to watch how the other passengers reacted. But surely there must be a word for the things you do think of at the time, but are held back from saying by simple good judgment.1 We have the phrase "holding your tongue", but I'm not sure it captures the specific nuances I'm looking for (or maybe it does, but doesn't sound as smart because it's not in a foreign language). Maybe the Germans, who have their own expression for "staircase wit" (Treppenwitz) and who also gave us such useful terms as Schadenfreude (the "shameful joy" that one sometimes finds in the misfortune of others) have a word for this, but I've got nothing.

What I did have were some perfectly servicable lines that went unused: the saccharine and sanctimonious "Jesus loves you, sir; the observational "Phew! It smells like you pissed in the face of Christ!"; or the aggressive "Christ asked me to say, 'Right back at you, buddy!'" punctuated by a loogie in his face. These are the things you don't say at the time, and these are the things you don't even shout from the bus window after he gets off, because your judgment is alerting you to the fact that there's an outside chance that a psycho who suddenly appears on your commute home might become part of your daily routine, and if you want to avoid having him go berserk and gnaw on your face the next time he sees you, you should just let him sit there and hate on Christ all he likes.2 This is why you wear headphones and sunglasses on the bus, your judgment reminds you. Just let him be.

"Agree or disagree, you've got to at least admire his ability to really stay on message," I eventually said to the driver after Black Jacques Shellac finally got off. The driver smiled sadly and nodded, and I wondered how many unused lines must float through the poor bastard's head every day given the sheer number of crazies who take public transportation but just aren't worth dealing with.

  1. The word I'm looking for is not "cowardice", ass.
  2. In theory, every time you get two lunatics together, a violence fight ought to break out, since one's going to be provoking the other, and the latter doesn't have any good judgment to tell him to just let things slide. Yet you don't see this happen much. Do lunatics just avoid each other, or are they remarkably tolerant?


Blogger Dickolas Wang said...

Brilliant! How the hell do you not have more readers?

7/05/2005 04:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Paul said...

We're all lurkers.

7/06/2005 12:35:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Lynn said...

And now you've given yourself away!

7/06/2005 12:48:00 AM  
Blogger John Eje Thelin said...

Argh - pet peeve alert (histrionic tone should not be seen as reflection on otherwise excellent blog post):

Schadenfreude doesn't have *anything* to do with shame. "Schaden" means "damage" - it is the joy of seenig someone else sustain damage of some kind. Here in Sweden, we even say that the only true joy is damage-joy. And we're not ashamaed of it.

Really, the word has no such connotations whatsoever. Rather the opposite; gleeful laughing while pointing at the unfortunate victim is more what it indicates.

7/08/2005 12:24:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Lynn said...

Well, you're right about the literal translation. However, "shameful joy" is a gloss often given when it's translated into English, which perhaps says something about how the concept translates between cultures as well as about how the word does.

7/08/2005 12:38:00 AM  

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