He of Pants Unsuitable

Several years ago I designed a couple of chess sets, and among the feedback I received there was an e-mail from a gentleman named Ray, who also made chess sets and had, in fact, won some awards for his "themed" chess sets, which included a set made from various makes and sizes of fire hydrants. Ray was an interesting guy; during the course of our correspondence, I learned that he was about 50, that he lived with or near his mother, and that he'd served in Vietnam. He was single, and one of the last times I heard from him he'd taken off around the world to meet a Russian mail-order bride he'd been conversing with via e-mail. He got as far as Paris, as I recall, before chickening out. He sent a long group e-mail to myself and others of his friends describing the journey in lavish and sometimes eccentric detail. As an example of the latter, I recall a confrontation he described between himself and an airline employee at the Denver airport in which he was told that his "pants were not suitable for flying." His e-mail did not include a description of the pants in question, leaving the nature of their unsuitability for us to imagine. The incident is described in passing, as Ray's experience of the Denver airport was simply in passing, but I found the phrase evocative and it has since become one of my favorite idioms: "His pants are not suitable for flying" has, in my mind, approximately the same meaning as "his elevator does not go all the way to the top" and "he's one card short of a full deck." I say "approximately" because, while the latter expressions clearly imply lunacy characteried by deficiency, of one sort or another, "his pants are not suitable for flying" seems to lack this perjorative connotation. One whose pants are not suitable for flying is crazy in an entirely benign way; as long as there are responsible personnel to remind him to change them before boarding an aircraft, no harm can come of him.

A Subtle Kindness

I knew I liked Dr. M_______ the second week I was in the Chemistry department. I was riding the elevator up from the basement. It stopped at the ground floor and a college-age male with some kind of neurodegenerative disease rolled onto the elevator in his wheelchair, together with a woman who was obviously there to assist him. The doors closed, and at the next floor Dr. M_______ got on. The kid in the wheelchair was parked right in front of the buttons. Without missing a beat, and with a slightly impatient tone, Dr. M_______ says "Five, please." "Sure," the kid replies amiably, and reaches out a trembling, scrawny arm and, with some difficulty, presses the button for five. Nobody said anything for the rest of the ride up, but you could feel both the kid and his assistant, who might've been a sister, flush with gratitude. Most people, in that situation, they look at the kid and feel like they can't ask anything of him, so maybe they nod politely and smile awkwardly while they reach around him to press the button for themselves. Dr. M_______ saw, in the second between the time the elevator doors opened and the time he stepped on, how rarely this kid would find himself in a situation--ANY situation--in which HE could be the one helping out, instead of the one asking for help. He saw an opportunity to make the kid feel like a normal person, and he took it, without being patronizing, without trying to politely tippy-toe around the glaring fact of the kid's handicap, and without second-guessing himself. He saw all that, and he did it, and he never once let on that he knew what he was doing. But he did, and everybody on that elevator knew he did, and every one of us, including me, had a brief glimpse of authentic human kindness. From that moment on I knew he was someone I wanted to know better.


Memphis, Tennessee

Recorded in 1959 and released as the B-side of "Back in the USA," Chuck Berry's song "Memphis, Tennessee" was not an immediate hit in the US, but would creep as high as #6 on the British pop charts in 1960(?). Although diametrically opposed in tone, the song's story foreshadows Berry's 1965 hit "Promised Land" (covered by Elvis in 1973) with its protagonist negotiating a cross-country long-distance phone call with the operator. In "Promised Land," the narrator's tone is jubilant and triumphant, but in "Memphis, Tennessee" it is somber and morose. "Memphis" is the story of a young man returning a long-distance call to a girl named "Marie," who lives in Memphis, "on the south side/high up on a ridge/just a half-a-mile from the Mississippi bridge," with whom the narrator had been emotionally involved, and subsequently separated "because her Mom did not agree." The songs plays with listeners' expectations; based on the typical content of pop songs from that era, most people automatically assume that the narrator is a young man, just starting out in the world, who remembers Marie as an early sweetheart, perhaps from his teenage years, with whom he was forced to part because of her mother's disapproval. The last line of the song, however, turns our expectations on their heads:

"Marie is only six years old. Information, please: try to put me through to her in Memphis, Tennessee."

The song so effectively misleads us that this line commonly horrifies first-time listeners--he was involved with a six-year-old girl? On repeated listening, however, we realize that the idea of a romantic or sexual involvement between the narrator and Marie is never stated, and come to understand that Marie is not the narrator's former sweetheart, but his child. The "Mom" mentioned in the lyrics is not a tyrannical mother-in-law figure, but the narrator's ex-wife, who "tore apart our happy home in Memphis, Tennessee" not by meddling, but by divorcing the narrator and maintaining custody of their daughter, Marie. And so in one line the song gains a tremendous gravity, transmogrifying from an adolescent paen to puppy love (which is what most other pop songs of the era actually were) into a much more serious lament of a much more mature situation. A young man (and he must be young, for how else could his sweetheart's *mother* effectively exert control over their relationship?) who loses a sweetheart is consolable--he has a long life ahead of him and should be able to find another. An older man who has missed the formative early years of his daughter's life due to an acrimonious divorce is not so quick to find solace, and his is a situation that most grown men, regardless of age, could at least relate to (if not actually identify with.)

Coming as it did in 1959, this one key line in this one particular song anticipated, in its affect, the metamorphosis of Rock 'n' Roll itself from children's music to adult fare, a process which would not be well underway until the advent of Cream in the late '60s. That the song was released as a B-side and did not find widespread acceptance until covered by Lonnie Mack in 1963 is perhaps, at least in part, due to the anachronism of its theme. Rock 'n' Roll audiences were younger, then, and not ready for the emotional weight of a subject as serious as divorce and the pangs of fatherhood. With its incestuous blurring of the line between mother and lover, the song, of course, is ripe fodder for Freudian analysis, and especially given the pedophiliac tone of some of Berry's other songs (e.g. "Sweet Little Sixteen") and the sex scandals that rocked his career ("C'mon, baby, just let me pee on you!") the way is clearly open for disappointing moralistic interpretations of "Memphis, Tennessee." Such tawdry readings miss the more profound meanings of the song and of its position in cultural space.