by H. W. Moss
The title of this essay was originally going to be “snappy comebacks.” But when I gave a couple examples to Dano, he said, “Nobody likes a smartass.”
Turns out I am not the only practitioner of this either in my family or in the world at large. Here’s how it often begins: Someone says something you know the answer to, but, like Groucho Marx, instead of thinking about it and being polite, you respond by saying what’s on the top of your head.
For example, in this particular instance I had just sat down with a group of friends meeting at Gordon Biersch along the Embarcadero. They already had drinks in front of them, they told me I had missed the bread pudding and, just as I was introduced to the lovely Natalia, a rather loud voice coming from over my shoulder said in apparent non sequitur, “This is Jonathan. He will be taking over for me this evening because I have a rather large party to attend.”
In case you haven’t already gotten it, this was the waiter bidding all of us an adieu as he went off to greener and, presumably, more lucrative pastures. But I at first had no clue who he was nor why he was telling us this which was quite out of the blue, but I barely in that instant figured it out.
However, instead of nodding politely, I said in a voice that included everyone at the table, “I certainly hope you enjoy your party. Is it in your honor?”
The problem with a smartass reply is someone could take it the wrong way. I mean, this guy could just have easily spilled a drink on me. Instead, his face assumed a wry smile and he said, “Noooo. But it is by invitation only.”
Yah, I think he got me.
I was dining with a girl friend and the waiter came up to ask if we cared for drinks. I asked for a scotch over, and the waiter turned to her and said, “What’s the lady like?”
With a wide smile and sensing I had lots of time in which to spread it on thick, I said, “Why, she’s quite charming, thank you.”
After both he and she had a second to absorb this, he said, “That deserves a free drink.”
One day I was in a record store (Why do we still call them that? They don’t sell records any more.) When I offered up a credit card for my purchase, the clerk said, “Can I have a driver’s license?”
Quick as a whip, I replied, “What’s the matter? Didn’t they issue you one?”
My Uncle Denny had an unbeatable repertoire. In a restaurant at breakfast he would order eggs and the wait person would invariably ask, “How would you like them, sir?” He would hold out his left hand palm up, his right hand palm down and say, “One up, one down.”
His wife, my aunt Justine, knowing what would probably occur, frequently warned him in advance not to do that before the food was served, because otherwise it could contain hot pepper revenge.
One day Denny did his routine and the order taker departed. When she returned with arms laden with platters, she had the cook in tow. As she set the plate containing his eggs on the table in front of him, the cook took over and said, “I wanted you to know which is which. This one is up, that one is down. I didn’t want you to mix them up.”
I like to point to an item on the menu item which reads, “Two eggs any style,” and say, “I’ll have that.” When they ask, “How would you like those?” I say, “Just like it says. Any style.” Sometimes I get a laugh, sometimes I don’t. And then I have to fess up and choose.
Uncle Denny used to respond to a cheerful waiter asking, “How are you this morning?” with: “Oh, you know. I couldn’t get out of bed this morning because I was awake all night thinking about my taxes and when I finally got up my feet hurt so bad to step on I didn’t want to put on my shoes, and then when I pulled on my pants my calves ached because I jogged too much the day before, and as I tightened the belt my stomach started to give me a pain so I took a deep breath and my chest hurt which is when I realized my arms were sore because I forgot to wear my neck brace to bed the night before which is what kept me awake all night thinking about my taxes. How are you?”
My friend Jesper, which sounds like “yes-purr” and is a perennial pronunciation problem, has this to say when the waiter (We’re doing this to a lot of restaurant people, aren’t we?) says, “Hi. My name is Albert and I’ll be your waiter this evening,” with, “Yes, hello. My name is Jesper and I’ll be your customer this evening. This is my wife, Roya, and she will be your customer too.”
Jesper has been known to stand in line at a Starbucks and order a latte. The counter person will say, “What kind of milk would you like in that?” And Jesper will reply, “How about a little goat’s milk?”
Get the picture?