Friday, October 19, 2012

Beggars and Wags

I was walking alone along a sidewalk in Manhattan one evening a few years ago when a young man suddenly came up to me and barked, “Hey! Give me a hundred dollars!” Now I don’t usually go courting death, and I didn’t have a Crocodile Dundee knife in my pocket. But maybe I saw half a twinkle in this guy’s eye, or maybe I just couldn’t get around the fact that I had no way to comply with his demand. One way or another, I only had a split second of fear before suddenly deciding he looked as ridiculous as a freshman showing up twenty minutes after class ends with some lame story about a roommate who messes with his alarm clock. I felt complete control over the situation and said, “Oh, come on! I don’t have a hundred dollars on me.”

And then the fellow burst the thin balloon of my smug superiority with one quick stroke of piercing wit. “All right then,” he said, “give me one dollar and owe me ninety-nine.” Brilliant. He let me set my own terms and then made a new demand that fell within them: there’s no way I could have said, “I don’t have a dollar on me.” And I can’t have been the only one who answered this guy on the basis of cash on hand. The ploy was so clever, I congratulated him and gave him two dollars.

Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron presents one-hundred stories as told by a group of ten Florentine refugees from the Plague, one story a day from each member of the group for ten days. The friends devote the Sixth Day to stories about people who, like my Manhattan friend, gain something for themselves by a witty remark. For the most part, these ten stories lag behind the other fifty I’ve read; the plots, dedicated to setting up the joke, don’t have enough length or depth to explore characters or ideas as well as some of the others. But that’s not to say they don’t have their charms. The funniest in this set tells the story of Chichibio, a gentleman’s cook who can’t resist eating one leg of a roast crane one evening before serving it. When the gentleman scolds him for his impertinence, Chichibio takes his master to a lake to see that cranes indeed have only one leg. The gentleman laughs when he sees the cranes standing in the water on one leg; he yells, “Hey!” and the startled cranes reveal their hidden limbs. “What do you think of that? Do they or do they not have two legs now?” he asks. “Yes, sir,” replies Chichibio, “but if you had shouted at the bird on the table last night, it would have pushed out its other leg, too.”

Last semester in Italy, some of us in the group held a couple of book club meetings. We talked briefly about discussing some stories in The Decameron, and one of the native Italians said she would send us a list of what were considered the important stories. Her list and my list of favorites intersected on only two stories out of the fifty I had read. Clearly my idea of what makes for an “important” story doesn’t align with the conventional wisdom. So it should come as no surprise to me when I look back at that list now and see that two of the stories from what seemed to me a slightly disappointing sixth day are among those held in high esteem. At least the story of Chichibio and the crane is one of them.

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