So Smart

One wishes to be smart enough to answer correctly Steven Wright’s question: Suppose you’re driving your car at the speed of light and you turn on the headlights; what happens?

Sadly, I’m stumped. Guessing does not count.

Smartness rests at a simpler, more basic level.

On vacation, for instance. And in an unfamiliar, foreign environment. That is to say, a place at which I am unfamiliar and at which I am foreign.

Parked on a side chair in front of the local coffee shop, adjoining a small, round table, a tall cup of coffee is sipped daily. From 6 to 7 a.m., that’s where I can be found. Every morning. Reading the Boston Globe. Not to suggest I’m in some kind of a rut.

One morning, a giant SUV piloted by a silver-haired 40-ish gentleman pulls up to “my” curb. Leaning toward the passenger seat and curb, he gently hollers, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

I’m the only one there, to quote DeNiro. And managed to resist a smart-aleck: “That’s one.”

“Sure,” I reply. Ambiguously.

Seated in the passenger seat is a 14 or 15 year-old girl. She displays the timelessly and universally preferred-by-all-teenagers facial expression of an emotion someplace between mortification and embarrassment. Mortified at her presumptuous father; embarrassed by her physical position between two tedious adults.

“Can you recommend a breakfast place where we can get a great blueberry pancake?” the driver asks.

Recall, I’m a stranger in a place that’s strange to me.

But, not only can I offer a good recommendation, the place is very close by and very simple to direct the SUV and occupants to. Can’t miss it.

Without moving my chair or dropping the newspaper, I begin to respond, catch myself in this desperate act of incivility, rise from the chair, and approach the SUV passenger side.

Prompting that sitter’s expression to morph from mortification to certain embarrassment and, finally, annoyance at the intrusion to her personal space.

There was no leaning on the car’s windowsill, by the way.

Fast answer, delivered with a smile. A tremendous sigh of relief knowing the-end-is-near crosses the passenger’s face, and off they go. To pancake bliss.

Now back to the chair, the Globe and the coffee.

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