“Man walks into a bar with an octopus…”

 And so began the long tradition of Tim Grobaty telling me a joke—line-by-line, one trip past my desk at a time. That could take awhile, even though he walked past my desk a lot. It was situated at the entry to the newsroom of the Press-Telegram, where I was the secretary to a huge room full of reporters, but most primarily to Rich Archbold, who was then the managing editor. It was a golden time, and one of the reasons is that—the daily, crushing deadlines notwithstanding—time didn’t matter as much. I didn’t care how long it took to get to the punch line. 

That’s the fun when you aren’t watching the clock, or texting or tweeting or whatever it is that’s going on instead of real human contact. Does anybody even take the time to tell jokes, anymore? Or do we spend all that time deleting the “funny” forwards from our e-mail without even looking at them? Yeah, I sound old. But that used to be the way young sounded.

 “Time is on my side,” Mick Jagger teased smugly. From where I sat when I heard it—Haight-Ashbury, 1966-67–it was true enough. I met my first living ex-husband at the Fillmore Auditorium at a Grateful Dead/Jefferson Airplane concert. He was draped over a speaker on the stage, celebrating his discharge from the Navy after serving in Vietnam. Cupid was on acid that night, evidently.

 But contrary to popular belief about the tie-died masses, we weren’t all sitting around the panhandle staring into our palms with wonder. Some of us marched for black civil rights, women’s rights and ending the war in Vietnam, while ignoring the Madison Avenue suits—now iconified as “Mad Men,” on cable TV—telling us what to eat, wear and think.

 So you’ll know: I earned my credentials early on, in 1962, as a 15-year-old marching at ABC-TV to protest the firing of Soupy Sales. My sign screamed “Don’t Can Soup.” In other words, one of the first important things I learned about my nature was that it was never going to push me to earn money and buy things. I wanted to change things.

 There were things to change. I didn’t like being called “the girl” at the Presidio office where I worked as the clerk steno. I refused to wash the coffee cups that all the male higher-ups left on my desk at night. I refused to take the confidential trash to the shredder-on-amphetamines machine that would have harmed my hearing even more than Janis Joplin was doing. I talked other secretaries into refusing the menial girly duties assigned to them by the fat-cat, double-dipper, GS-16 guys (civil-service schmucks who demanded that we refer to them as retired colonels).

 There were consequences. I never got that valued “Secret” level clearance, although maybe that was determined long before, at the moment they saw my address in the Haight. Eventually it became clear to me that my career was never going to take off. When finally I gave up and left, there was no going-away party or parting gift of costume jewelry. I’ve had a great life, anyway.

 And that’s my point: people seem to operate today as though there’s no time to do everything.

 No, wait! That’s not my point! This is: operating that way is an excuse for being selfish.

 Not that time management can’t be important, but what are we measuring? There are people out there calculating how much time we all waste looking for our keys. Or waiting in line at Starbucks. Why not more emphasis on figuring out how to fit in something that makes a difference in someone else’s life?

 Here’s my formula: very little time, very big payoff. How little time? As much as it takes to send a card or an e-mail or a phone call, to ask how-ya-doin’, to pay a compliment, to offer support. How big a payoff? People’s lives are forever changing in fractions of a second, through accidents, small victories, medical diagnoses, natural disasters and birthdays. You could be the person who shares that incredible moment, who is there to applaud or to support.

 Sappy—‘til you’ve tried it.

 I realize it’s become hard not to have a major relationship with the lifeless electronics in our lives. People are out on the walking trail with buds in their ears, looking down at their phones, totally enmeshed in their portable entertainments, all the while missing out on the sounds and smells, sights, and interesting people around them. It was bad enough when e-mail came along and stopped us all chatting on the phone like Lucy and Ethel. Now, it’s texting without voices in a vocabulary style that would make Miss Riliett, my high school English teacher, lose the pins from her French twist.

 We sometimes seem headed toward an insulated community of people who rarely have actual human contact. Who never care about the others in their community because they never see, hear or touch the lives of someone besides themselves. Or worst, who never have time to wait for the punch line.

Uhh, Mr. Grobaty?

“…and the guy says, “Are you gonna f#%k that thing, or play it?”

  1. Jeanine
    March 25, 2010 at 5:49 am

    Beautifully written.

  2. kb
    March 25, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Louise – I love it – well said and here I go sending an email to tell you so!!!!

  3. January
    March 25, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    You mean that cell phones have not increased telephone contact? I still have my Great Depression days’ habit of using the phone only to transact business, even with family. My kids use their phones to tell them the time of day and which way is north. Email keeps me more in touch with people than telephone ever did. Maybe that’s because I hate waiting to hear all the details when the other end requires leaving a message. “Press 5 to send a page. Press 6 if the sun is shining. Press 7 if you did not like option 6. Etc. Press 101 if you yawned more this time than last.”

    The biggest struggle going on is between literate folks who read and write and audiences who require a video, a pretty picture, or a sales pitch. I belong to the former but predict the latter will win. Do you suppose the Trappists are still accepting applications?

  4. Lisa Rinaldi
    March 25, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    Dear Ms. Cunningham,

    Even though Ray Bradbury predicted in 1953 in Fahrenheit 451 that we’d be a society walking around with portable sounds in our ears and watching interactive video on our walls, it didn’t prevent it from happening. So, here we are.

    I am of your generation and understand perfectly. Thank you for the well-written, telling piece. Plus the joke–I laughed right out loud.

  5. tim
    March 25, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Nice story, hippie. The way I remembered the joke was a guy walks into the bar with bagpipes (several trips past your desk follows) punch line: Don’t worry he’ll play it once he figures out he can’t f%&%# it! Either way, I guess. Remember the old “What’s My Word?” show that never made it to TV? Now that’s a long joke. I’m still telling it in certain bars.

    • Louise
      March 26, 2010 at 6:58 am

      This just continues the legend that I never could tell a joke, which is why you were telling this one line by line to help me out. We’ll get to the jukebox play list later.

  6. Libby
    March 26, 2010 at 6:22 am

    Amen, Aunt Louise! I share the ire when I see people out walking or running and they have plugged their ears to the wonderful sounds of spring. They truly miss out when they tune out, not to mention the whole safety issue. Just when I start to worry about the future generation, my 13 year old son starts downloading classic 70’s music like Queen and Heart to his IPod, and has discovered the Gameshow channel on satelite (“Mom, there’s a great show where you guess the prices of things, I think it’s called Price is Right, or something”).

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