When we went to visit my grandmother, who lived in Staten Island, we would stay in her house. My older sister, Jean, and I would spend hours in the downstairs room where the TV was; the television stations in New York had different programming than we had back home, and we were fascinated to see TV shows that we had never seen before.
The room was full of books, too. I think it had been my grandfather’s study, or office. He had died two weeks after I was born, so I never met him. Jean and I found the books fascinating. We leafed through them, and as we got older, we read a good many of them.
I still have a tattered copy of the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, dated 1894, which Grandma gave me when I was eleven of twelve. But I no longer have A Thesaurus of Humor, which I discovered when I was eight, and which Grandma also gave to me. I took it home and read it cover to cover, and I would read the jokes out loud to my parents, and memorize them. I must have been insufferable.
Dad told me that my grandfather, his father, had been the managing editor of the Staten Island Advance and a member of one or two fraternal organizations and had taken jokes from the book to put into speeches that he had had to give. I only vaguely understood what Dad meant, just as I only vaguely understood some of the jokes.
Today, as I was walking through Porter Square in Cambridge, one of those old jokes suddenly came up out of memory. I have a touch of a cold, walking briskly loosened up some congestion, so I hawked and spat, making sure to spit on the road, not on the sidewalk. That’s when the joke re-emerged from memory.
MAN: Your honor, I feel I should be fined.
JUDGE: Why is that?
MAN: I expectorated on the sidewalk.
JUDGE: Well, if it makes you feel better — the Court fines you two dollars. Next!
I distinctly remember reading that joke in Grandma’s house, and not understanding it. I asked my father what “expectorate” meant. “Why, it means ‘spit’,” said Dad. Then my eight-year-old self thought I got the joke: how silly of the man to ask to be fined just because he spat on the sidewalk! I hadn’t thought of that joke in thirty-five years, but remembering it today I finally realized that the joke was funny in large part because the man was obviously educated and overconscientious.
A Thesaurus of Humor disappeared some years ago. I can still see it in my mind’s eye: a thick book bound in medium blue. I can remember how the jokes were laid out on the page, grouped together by category. I wish I still had it. It’s a good thing I don’t still have it, because I would probably succumb to the temptation of reading it again cover to cover, and memorizing the jokes, and reading them out loud to people who would only listen out of politeness.