A laughing matter

When I was a kid, a popular hobby was stamp collecting. Or at least it was popular with other kids. With me, it was distinctly UNpopular.

Not that I didn’t try, and not that I wasn’t interested. I loved looking at the amazing variety of stamps – the colors, designs, sizes, countries of origin. In fact, they still fascinate me. But as a collector, I had one not-so-small problem – I was totally disorganized.

And let’s face a hard reality: If you can’t arrange stamps in their proper places in the albums, no matter how much you like looking at them, you’re not a collector but a shlemiel.

When I looked at the stamp album on my desk and my stamps all the hell over the place, I felt like a failure. I’m sure my mother thought the same of me. As a lifelong Democrat and a great admirer of FDR (who was a famous philatelist), she probably hoped if I could be organized to collect stamps, I’d eventually be president. Or if not that, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

After I admitted I was doomed as a stamp collector, I deluded myself into thinking maybe I could collect coins, especially if I stuck only with U.S. coins. I had some albums — those blue ones, one for pennies, one for nickels and one for dimes. I probably put a few coins in some of them, but in short order, given my big-time candy hang-up, any gelt I managed to scrounge got spent on Sugar Daddies.

After that, I gave up on ever being a collector of anything. But years later, well into adulthood, I realized I was a collector, just not of stamps or coins or anything conventional. Instead, I was a collector of jokes.

Joke hunter

I always liked jokes, both to hear and to tell. And when I say “always,” I mean it almost literally. I can remember telling jokes (though admittedly silly, childish ones) in first grade. After that, there was no stopping me.

Back then, joke telling was a popular pastime. Not everyone could tell jokes well, but even if you couldn’t tell one, you could always enjoy one. So jokes were almost coin of the realm – a special part of human interaction that delighted everyone.

Of course, it was a different world then. People visited each other, face-to-face, a lot more than they do now. People weren’t as glued to the tube (and with only two channels, in black and white, the glue wasn’t as powerful), and town had a lot more people and businesses to gather around. So more peeps were out of their houses, in diners, bars, coffee shops and the like, shmoozing.

Plus, it was just what we did. When I see four people at the same restaurant table, all of them checking their cell phones, it seems like some sort of anti-utopian sci-fi flick to me. But to them, obviously, it’s just normal. This only shows how stuck in The Good Olde Days I am.

Anyhow, in the Good Olde Days, I was always on the lookout for a new joke (which, if ya wanna get real, is just an old joke you haven’t yet heard). And here’s the thing: In order to hear one, you had to find someone who knew it. There may’ve been joke books in print, but I had no access to them. The library certainly didn’t have any (and believe me, I looked), nor were there any in town in Grey’s Bookstore or in the paperback racks in the drug stores.

As a little kid, new jokes were few and far between for me because I’d pretty much heard all the kids’ jokes. Adults knew jokes, but I didn’t talk to adults, or if I did, it was only in a perfunctory way. Once I became a teen, all that changed. Then, while I was still a kid, I was no longer a pisher, so I could chat with men. And inevitably when I did, I’d hear a joke from one of them — some of them even off-color.

Let me clarify a few things about the dirty jokes. First, they weren’t really all that bad — rather than “dirty,” most of them would probably be called “naughty.” This is especially true in light of today’s humor, which you routinely hear on prime time TV and is just considered bizness as usual, but in the ’50s would’ve gotten a nightclub comedian thrown in prison. Second, the only place we had access to dirty jokes was if someone told them. I guess there were magazines and books of dirty jokes, but I never saw one, nor would I have known where to find one.

The X-rated files

Earlier, I said I collect jokes. I always did, but for years it was an informal thing. I’d hear jokes, I’d tell them a bunch of times, and I’d remember a fair number of them. But I also forgot a lot of them too. So when I was in my 20s, I decided to write them down. I wrote them on 5-inch-by-8-inch index cards and kept them in a file box. I didn’t write every joke I heard, only what I thought were the best ones. Then, if I was looking for some yucks, I’d grab the file, and check it out for “new” material. And when I did this, I realized something: When I saw a joke, even if I’d heard it decades ago, I almost always remembered who told it to me.

So my joke collection serves two purposes. One, of course, is a source of amusement. The other is a memorial of sorts: Most of those jokes I heard from “old guys.” Actually, they were a lot younger than I am now, but to me as a young guy, they were ancient. Today, almost all of them have long shuffled off this mortal coil. So I see their joke, I remember them. I get a laugh and a feeling of loss at the same time — something that’s like a lot of life these days.

Before I wrote this column, I looked in the file and ran across a joke told not by an old guy, but by an old gal — Mrs. Louise Wilson, one of my favorite high school teachers.

Mrs. Wilson was one of the best teachers I had anywhere. In class, she was all business, and she ran the class like a marine D.I runs a boot camp company. She had her lesson, she taught her lesson, and woe betide any fool who didn’t pay attention, chewed gum, yawned, slouched, or did anything she took as contrary to her grim purpose.

She also was one of the most sardonic human beings I ever knew, with a tongue that could’ve sliced rebar.

But I always suspected she had a sense of humor. She wasn’t funny in class and certainly never shared any yucks with me outside of class, but behind her cat’s eye glasses, she had a twinkle in eye. So while I sensed she had a sense of humor, my mother confirmed it.

Every Tuesday, my mother and a bunch of other retired teachers had lunch in the Hotel Saranac. Mrs. Wilson was one of the group and she always kept the others cracked up with her stories, quips and, believe it or not, jokes. My mother told me one that I immediately wrote down, and here it is.

A nun was driving along when her car ran out of gas. Luckily, it was right by a gas station. So she figured she’d just take a small container to the station, get some gas, start the car, and then drive it in for a fill up. She looked in the trunk and the only container she found was a bed pan. Figuring it would serve her purpose, she took it station and put gas in it.

After she walked back to car, she started to put the gas in the tank. Suddenly, a car pulled in back of her and a man got out.

He walked up to her, and said, “Sister, all my life I’ve been an atheist.” Then he pointed to the bed pan and said, “But you start your car with that, and I’m a believer!”