Off-the-wall repartee is a social art that must be carefully cultivated. It requires equal parts perceptibility, timing, exquisite juxtaposition of ideas and images quickly culled from the imagination, and a personal behavioral default setting of wacky.
It’s not the kind of craft that can be refined through trial and error. Badly miss with one or more of the above requirements, and you just may burn some relational bridges.
In my experience, situations in which it can often be practiced gracefully include dealings with bank tellers, restaurant servers, grandchildren and neighbors. It can be quite a hoot to employ it when taking cold calls from anonymous sales people.
Still, I’ve misjudged situations a few times. Once in a while an exchange with a bank teller comes off something like this:
Teller: Good morning, Mr. Quick. How are you?
Me: Hey, I’m so close to a state of unmitigated bliss, my epiglottis is doing the Viennese waltz!
Teller: Um ... that’s nice. Would you like your cash back in twenties or smaller bills?
Situations in which I have to harness my natural inclination to wax outrageous include dealings with editors for whom I write, department and division heads at the university where I teach, parents of my guitar students, and my tax preparation adviser. In those cases, a mode that is far more challenging for me to muster and sustain is required: straightening up.
Once a relationship has been established on the basis of this kind of communication, a delightful dance can ensue in ongoing encounters. A teller with whom I regularly dealt for a few years came to know that the difference between a total of the checks I’d present and what I was depositing was to be converted into “cash-a-roonie.” You get them trained, and all kinds of possibilities open up.
Nicknames are pretty much something I can’t help assigning those in my life. My years-long association with a particular restaurant led to a re-christening of several of the more legendary figures among its parade of characters. If column length and privacy considerations permitted, I could tell you the stories behind my acquaintances with The Anaheim Lotus Blossom, Blizzard King, Bam Bam, Three Way, Cheese Boy, The Divine Miss V, Shazzam and Algee.
You have to be willing to get as good as you give where nicknames are concerned. At that establishment, I was Binky.
I guess my predilection for banter that skirts the edges of productive, grownup dialogue stems from my constant awareness that we’re all going to die someday. Our time in this realm is really short when you consider the sweep of history. Some might argue that this makes the case for maximizing the information value of one’s utterances.
You know, progress and achievement and all that. Consider, though, that it was also that same kind of strictly business conversation that gave us the means to reduce it all to rubble in unprecedentedly fancy ways. As jazz great Mose Allison said, “The good gets better and the bad gets worse.” I would wager that is because we did not permit ourselves to loosen up and have a bit of fun as we advanced civilizationally. To quote another jazz great, Duke Ellington, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
I realize not everyone is going to go in for this to the degree that I do. That’s probably just as well. Sometimes my wife gets the “is-he-like-this-at-home” question, and her response is, “You people get the mild version.”
Barney Quick is one the Republic’s community columnists. All opinions expressed are those of the writer. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.