It Didn’t Seem Funny at the Time

by Larry Danielson

A young writer answered his telephone and heard a voice with an over-the-top Swedish accent. “I’m calling from Sweden.  On behalf of the Stockholm committee, I want to say you have been awarded the Nobel Prize…for Literature.”

‘Yeah, sure, you betcha. And I suppose this is Old King Olaf. Who is this anyway?’

If you’ve ever received a prank call, you might appreciate the writer’s quick-witted response.  But, if you’ve ever been wrong in your assumptions, you might appreciate the embarrassment of Sinclair Lewis when he learned the call was real and that he was the first American to receive the Nobel Prize.  Friends say he sank into his chair and almost fainted. He felt more like the winner of the Dumb-bell Prize 

Looking back, most of us have had embarrassing moments.While they did not seem funny at the time, we may later recall them with gales of laughter. They are, after all, educational. From such stories, we remember that “we are not alone.” When we hear such tales from others, we think: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

The word “embarrass” originally meant “to encounter obstacles or difficulties.” Engineers would talk of  “a road embarrassed with rocks.” Military leaders would speak of “an embarrassed field of operations.” In earlier times, a privileged few even complained of having “an embarrassment of riches,” having more money than they knew what to do with.  If you have that problem today, some of us will happily volunteer to help you find a solution.

In current usage, the word “embarrass” means “to feel self-conscious or ill-at-ease.” 

It brings to mind the last three letters of the word (“A-S-S”)…because that’s how we often feel in such situations.

Sometimes our embarrassments come from what we say: the mishaps of language. Have you ever had your words come out wrong? One of my Winnipeg friends was introduced to someone who he knew slightly. He meant to say, as a compliment, “She’s no stranger to me.” Unfortunately, the words that came out were: “She’s no stranger than me.” He turned a “Win-Win” into a “Lose-Lose.”

Other times there are cultural differences at play. For a number of years, I visited St. John’s, Newfoundland every fall. One of the pleasures of my trips was to eat out and try a variety of foods—bake-apple tarts, cod’s tongue, even fish and brewis (or hardtack). On one trip, I asked the waitress: “Do you have poached fish?”

She scowled at me. “No, love. All our fish are caught legally?”

After my Newfoundland friends stopped laughing, they consoled me with the story of a new professor at M.U.N.—that’s Memorial University of Newfoundland).  This professor also was a mainlander, and she had rented in advance a furnished apartment.  When she arrived, however, she realized that bed did not come with sheets. Undaunted, she walked to the street corner, hailed a taxi, and instructed the driver, “Take me to the Bay.” Now, if you’re Canadian, you might be thinking of the same department store as she was, the Hudson’s Bay. But but when taxi arrived at the destination, all she could see was water. The driver had understood she wanted a view of the harbour front.

Sometimes the embarrassment comes, not from what we say, but where we say it.

In 1970, my wife Myra and I were considering moving from New York City to Canada. We made a preliminary trip to Ontario with a couple of friends, one of whom was Canadian.  It was a stormy night and the roads were covered with freezing rain. As we drove through Buffalo, we had to stop again and again for toll roads. Thirty-five cents here; thirty-five cents there; thirty-five cents everywhere. 

We approached one that looked different.

It didn’t have an Express Lane, but that didn’t matter. All I had was bills left anyway.  

I asked my Canadian friend what this was. He was sleeping in the back seat. He glanced up at the red and green lights and said: “It’s just another bloody toll.”

So I drove up and gave the uniformed man a dollar.

“What’s this?” he groused.

“It’s a dollar. I’m expecting change.”

We were required to get out of the car and go inside the building, where I experienced the most intense interview I’ve ever had from Canada Customs.

Now, it’s not only Americans coming to Canada who can make mistakes. Sometimes Canadians say the wrong things when other people come to our country. When I worked with Southern Manitoba Concerts, a musical tour-sponsoring organization, we hosted a show with a comic musician named Elyakim Taussig. He was a funny man, but this story is not about him.

After the show, I complemented his stage manager Chris on how well he’d handled a few technical problems. He said that sometimes it went worse. A few years before, Queen Elizabeth had made one of her infrequent tours of our country. Chris was the stage manager for a gala show in Toronto.  It was his job to insure that the audience was comfortable and that the production ran smoothly. The only problem was, the show could not start until the Royal Entourage was in place, and they were locked away in the Green Room at a reception put on by local dignitaries.

Show time came and went and people in the audience got restless. After more than an hour had passed, the audience was losing patience and Chris feared the situation “could turn ugly.”  He phoned the reception room, hoping to get a message to one of the hangers on.

“This is Chris, the stage manager.”

“Yes?” said the hanger on.

“You better tell Betsy to get her buns down here…or I’m not going to be responsible for what this crowd does.”

It worked. Only minutes later, the Royal party and all the VIPs appeared and the show started. It went off well. At the reception that followed Chris was clearly relieved.  He even met Prince Phillip. 

“Hi, I’m Chris, the stage manager.”

“Yes,” said the prince with a straight-faced expression. “We spoke on the phone.”

Sometimes our embarrassments come from what we say or who we say it to. Other times, it comes from what we do.  It’s a situational embarrassment, rather than a verbal one. 

When I was a young teacher, I was elected as the Chairman for Professional Development for our school division. That meant I had to attend a week-long conference in Brandon put on by the Manitoba Teachers Society.  Like every conference, this one had its share of VIPs. By the second day, I had a pretty good idea of who they were, and I’d even chatted with one of them.

The conference was held at Brandon University and I was staying at the Victoria Inn, which was only a couple of miles away.  I did not have my van there, but the walk each morning and evening was good exercise.  Unfortunately, on the third morning, it rained—dogs, cats, and buckets.

I also did not have an umbrella along, so I did the sensible thing: I phoned a taxi. The dispatcher said they were way behind schedule. They would try to pick me up in twenty minutes, but it could take as long as an hour.  I went outside the front door of the hotel and waited. 

After 15 minutes, a car pulled up about ten feet away. It was one of the VIPs who I’d chatted with in passing the day before. She smiled and waved at me to come get in. For a moment, I froze in my tracks. I was trying to decide whether to bilk the taxi driver and go with this golden opportunity…or do the right thing.  My conscience prevailed, but I stepped forward to explain the situation.  Just at that moment, a woman dashed by me and jumped into the car.  It was another VIP…and I realized, to my horror, that the smile and wave were not for me, but for this woman, who’d been standing further behind me. 

For the rest of the conference, those important personages eyed me, as if to say: “Who is that idiot? He almost tried to get in our car.”

If misery loves company, then this story helps me to feel better.  A traveller, waiting in an airport, was startled when the man seated beside him took one bite, and then another, from his candy bar. To teach the man a lesson, he reached over, and took a big bite out of the man’s burger. Then he got up and walked away.  As the traveller boarded his plane, he reached into his shirt pocket for the boarding pass. There he discovered his own candy bar.

Or consider this one:

A man in church left his pew to answer his cell phone. When he returned to the sanctuary, the congregation was standing, just finishing a song.  He slipped into the pew as unobtrusively as possible. He sat down with the others, settled back, and slid his arm around his wife’s shoulders. He had just begun to wonder when she started to wear perfume—he had not noticed it when they drove to church that morning—when he got a sharp poke in the back.  He turned around and there he saw his wife.

I imagine he cringes whenever he hears that Paul Anka song, “Put Your Arm Around My Shoulder.” 

“We are not alone.” Sometimes, however, we might wish we were alone. I attended Fargo Central High School and, way back then, our school had a swimming pool.  Our coaches—Mr. Manly and Mr. Freedman–always encouraged us to get used to the water gradually, first wetting our feet, then lowering ourselves in up to our knees, and finally sliding the rest of the way into the water. 

To many of my classmates that approach seemed like Slow Pain. These guys just ran from the locker room, across the shoulder of the pool, and dived in. That’s what my friend Doug always did.

Now you might be envious to think that we had a high school with a swimming pool years ago, but I can assure you it was not a waste of taxpayers’ money. It was very well used. We had the boys’ locker room on one end; the girls’ locker room on the other.

The girls all wore suits; the guys swam in the buff—at different times, of course.  My friend Doug had been absent for a week and he had to make up his gym classes. He thought it would be in the pool, since it was part of the swimming lessons he had missed.  Doug chucked his clothes in the locker room, opened the door to the pool, and made his usual dash-and-splash. He was somewhere in mid-dive, when he realized that it wasn’t guys in the pool.  He would never talk about it, but some of the girls sure did.

I suppose some of our most embarrassing moments come when we are exposed—physically.  Which brings me to…bathroom humour.

One of my English students at G.V.C. once wrote about stopping with friends at a restaurant in St. Pierre. They had been to the beach at St. Malo and were going to eat a bit before driving home. This girl ordered a Coke and a hamburger, then went to the restroom while her friends waited. As she returned to her both, all the older people smiled at her. She responded in kind. “Nice old folks, those.”

When she got to her booth, however, her friends weren’t just smiling; they were laughing hysterically. This poor gal had gotten the end of the toilet paper roll caught in her panties and as she made her way from the back of the restaurant to her seat near the front, the paper was unfurling itself like a banner behind her. That’s when you want to make a dramatic departure. “Exit, Stage Left.”

Myra and I traveled in Greece last spring and we found that all of the bathrooms there seemed to be configured differently.  In one Athens museum—newly renovated–I hunted high and low to find the faucet for the sink. Eventually, I spotted a pedal in the floor. I stepped on it and that did the job.  That brought to mind a story another one of my students told…about her summer trip to Europe. She was staying in a hotel in Vienna, and there the hunt was for the flush mechanism. The girl saw a cord on the wall, and, thinking it was a W.C.-style flush, she pulled it.  Unfortunately, it was the Emergency Call. The stool did not flush, but her face did when moments later a very large man kicked down the bathroom door.

Some public places like to be creative in the way they name their bathrooms. In Atlantic Canada, there is a chain called Jungle Jim and the bathrooms are labeled“Tarzan” and “Jane.” I have visited Mexican restaurants where the doors say “Hombres” (with a large hat) and “Senoritas” (with a head scarf). The toughest one I have encountered was in Leamington, ON.  When I was a social worker in southern Ontario, I was traveling home from a conference with several colleagues and we stopped for supper at a Chinese restaurant. 

People recommended the place as very “authentic” Chinese. All was well until I went downstairs to the bathroom. The doors were marked with Chinese characters. I plunged blindly in. When I saw the urinal, I knew I’d made the right choice. Next went Terry; then went John.  Terry came back with a grin on his face; John looked rather glum.  When Julie went, we said nothing, but when she came back, John asked her if she’d found the right one. “Of course,” she said. “I just looked at the floor and followed the path that was most worn.” I knew then that women are the smarter sex.

In my family, we still chuckle about a story involving my late Uncle Fay. 

Two things you should know: One, Fay was hard of hearing. Two, in his early 70s, he had prostrate cancer, which impaired his bladder control.  My mother had just moved to her home in Long Prairie, Minnesota and her brother – along with many other relatives—had come down for an Open House. Since there were many people present, the Open House was held at the near-by community room. 

When Fay arrived he had to go. He had driven all the way from North Dakota and he had waited as long as he could bear.  Unfortunately, the restroom at the community room was already in use. “Which one is your apartment?” Fay shouted to my Mom. 

“Second one on the left.”

Fay rushed down the street, into the house, and relieved himself. He was just coming out of the bathroom, buckling up, when he encountered a woman he had never seen. She looked frightened.

“Who are you?” she asked. 

 Long after, Fay insisted my Mom had said, “First door on the right.”

When Myra worked for our provincial government, she was traveling with colleagues to a Directors’ meeting in northern Manitoba. About midway in the trip, they stopped at a service station and Myra headed to the bathroom. She was using her crutches and discovered that the floor in the Women’s bathroom had just been washed. It was too slippery to risk. One of the other women said, “Use the Men’s. I’ll stay here and watch the door.”

All went well until another of their road companions came into the station. Being the driver, he had fuelled up the car.  Diane said, “Bob, watch this door.” Then she headed off to to the Ladies Room.  Diane never told Bob what he was supposed to be watching for—so he did not say anything when a tall native man walked by and into the bathroom.

No, the embarrassment wasn’t for Myra.

She was at the sink washing her hands, but the poor man whipped around and dashed out—thinking he’d walked into the wrong room.

I know that walking into the wrong bathroom is embarrassing, because it’s happened to me several times. Once, after a very long ride, from Indiana to Illinois, I stopped with friends at a service center on the outskirts of Chicago. Like my uncle Fay, I needed to go…badly.  As I rushed into the bathroom, I heard my friend Eric holler–“Lawrence.” 

I could tell from his tone I’d made a mistake.  I should have read the word on the door: “W-O-M-E-N. “Whoa-Men.”  

Another time, under similar circumstances, I headed into a restaurant and to the restroom. Just as I started pushing open the door, a woman behind me tugged my sleeve and pointed to the sign: “She’s wearing a skirt, sir.”

Even when you give me a picture, I sometimes get it wrong.

Years later, we can laugh at these situations, but it is hardest to talk about ones that are still close in memory. Last winter, I was in Winnipeg doing some work for the Department of Education. The evening was getting late and I had not found a good restaurant. I finally decided to stop at a fast-food place that had just been renovated.  The new lobby was large and bright and the restrooms had been relocated.  I headed to the Men’s.

The door was open. A man stood in front of me, and his young son blocked the doorway. The man was getting his kid’s order.  I waited patiently— for once I was not in a rush.  Finally, the man headed off to place their order, and the kid went in and walked straight to a booth. I followed, and I wasn’t impressed as I surveyed the room. In the renovations, the bathroom had adopted a Unisex architecture. No urinals. I went to a booth beside the kid and did my business. 

I was already out, standing in the line-up behind the dad, when the kid arrived and began talking feverishly with him. She pointed at me and whispered loudly: “That’s him!” I looked at the boy more closely and realized that, under the stocking cap, it might be a girl.  With a horrified feeling, I walked back down that hallway and, sure enough, there on the door was the sign” “Whoa-Men.”

It did not help any that the man had been standing in front of the sign. I don’t think he’d would have believed my explanation. I slipped out the back door of the food joint and set out to look for another restaurant.  The man and his daughter may still be talking about  that tall pervert she saw at Hardy’s.

The English playwright William Shakespeare said, in Twelfth Night

“Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”  I don’t know if that great Bard ever walked into the wrong bathroom, but I do know that life does have its embarrassing moments and that we are not alone in them. 

To paraphrase: “Some of us are born humble, some of us achieve humbleness, and some of us have humility thrust upon us.”