Al Batt: Johnny Cash sang it, so you know it must be true

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, May 7, 2024

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Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

I knew the day would be special.

Al Batt

What I wanted for lunch was breakfast, but the server asked if I’d like to hear today’s special. Why not?

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She said, “Today is special.”

I appreciated that. Cheerfulness is a flower that doesn’t grow in everyone’s garden.

The cafe’s radio played softly in the background, occasionally rising above the talk and the clatter of tableware. “I’ve been everywhere, man. I’ve been everywhere, man. Crossed the desert’s bare, man. I’ve breathed the mountain air, man. Of travel I’ve a-had my share, man. I’ve been everywhere.”

My eyes were bigger than my stomach. I wasn’t up to the challenge of cleaning my plate. One pancake went uneaten. The pancakes were bigger than I thought they’d be. The friendly server asked, “Do you want a box for the leftovers?”

I replied, “No, but I’ll thumb-wrestle you for them.”

As I found my way to the exit, I considered my stupid customer joke and that Johnny Cash had been everywhere. Johnny may have even remembered everywhere he’d been, but he didn’t remember everyone.

We know more people than we can remember.

We forget passwords, too. Each time I need a new password, I need to rename the dog. When I remember one, I say, “I accept these precious gifts called passwords with a deep sense of gratitude. “

Early in my schooling, we had a pop quiz. I was asked what the ninth letter of the alphabet was. I couldn’t remember, so I guessed “I,” and I was right. I felt smarter than I looked, but it was a lucky guess. In order to grow to a wise old age, you first have to be young, stupid and lucky.

I was in Barnes & Noble perusing books and delved deeply into “Finding Fame and Fortune by Making Ethanol from Clipped Toenails.” The fly in the ointment was that it required a lot of toes — way more than I have. I drooled over a new dictionary. It smelled like words. I read the entries for noteworthy, nother, notice and notion. I enjoyed the wordbook and learned next to “nothing.” I closed the dictionary in fear of being the last one in the store when it closed in eight hours. I moved to the magazine section and searched for The Economist.

I didn’t find that magazine, but I was drawn into the murky waters of the covers of celebrity gossip magazines. Earl Wilson wrote, “Gossip is when you hear something you like about someone you don’t.” Joseph Conrad said, “Gossip is what no one claims to like, but everybody enjoys.” Alice Roosevelt Longworth said, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” And to complete the quadfecta of quotes, Will Durant wrote, “To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves.”

I know who Wilson, Conrad, Longworth and Durant were, but I didn’t know those pictured on the covers. Maybe it was jealousy that didn’t allow me to recognize anyone. The only time I get on a magazine cover is when my name is on the address label. I thought of a song written by Shel Silverstein and sung by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, “Gonna see our pictures on the cover. Gonna buy five copies for our mothers. Gonna see my smilin’ face. On the cover of The Rolling Stone.”

The photos and names on the magazine lids were of people I didn’t know from TV shows I’d never heard of. A woman gracing the cover of an unfamiliar magazine resembled the friendly server from earlier in the day. There was mention of the royals, but it had nothing to do with the Kansas City Royals. One of my many shortcomings is that I can’t keep the royal families straight. I’m not even sure who Henry VIII is married to now.

There are good days when we feel as if we know everyone, with greetings galore in the cafe, post office or grocery store. On sadder days, it’s when we know everyone in the obituary section of the newspaper.

I don’t need to know whose images are gracing the covers of those glossy periodicals.

It makes life easier when I don’t need to remember people I never knew.

Al Batt’s columns appear in the Tribune every Wednesday.