Saturday, January 29, 2005

Pish on posh

This word's apocryphal acronymic association is absolutely absurd. The story is that "POSH", an acronym for Port Out, Starboard Home, was printed on 1st Class tickets for travel between England and India issued by the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company. The original folk etymology suggested that the port side on the trip out would have the coolest cabins ... a curious theory since it assumes that the microclimate of a ship is capable of providing a significant temperature differential. It does not take into account the position of the sun, the direction of the wind, or the fact that as the ship sails South to Cape Horn the port side will face East on the other side of the cape, sailing North the port side faces West. If the trip is through the Suez Canal, the time of year is more likely to be a temperature factor. This being the case an alternate theory was concocted. This suggested that the port side would always be in view of the shore and therefore the scenery would be better. But ships, especially large passenger ships do not hug the coast. There are too many possibilities for disaster from weather or shallows. Putting the death blow to this story is the fact that no tickets with POSH on them have ever been found, and the company records show no evidence of the phrase. Merriam Webster puts the earliest publication of the acronym story in the London Times Literary Supplement of October 17, 1935. But "posh," meaning a dandy, dates back to 1867. Some think it derives from a Romani word meaning half (used in monetary terms). Others, including Partridge, think it may be a contraction of polish. To spin this etymological circus out yet further, I could make a case for some other derivations as well. Posh -- from pasha a middle-eastern title for a ruler. Folklorically, pashas lived in great splendor and luxury. Luxurious items were sometimes described as "fit for a pasha." The phrase degraded and shortened to "pash" or "posh". Posh -- a variant of pashe or paishe which itself is a shortened variant of "passion". Posh -- a term used to indicate the luxurious decorations and vestments used in the church at "Pasch" or "Pasche" meaning Easter (Paschal season).

Common Tears

It is a mild December day in the commons. A good day for a walk, With an unlicensed cigarette. The trees provide their skeletal memories, And the pigeons poke forlornly, In the debris near the trashcans. On one of the benches (so odd that people stop To look, to think perhaps, and then Move on) Are three large translucent plastic bags Full of wrapped gifts. Abandoned? The next bench is 20 feet away. On it sits a man. His clothes are woodsy, chic, And new. He is sitting very still. Tears are streaming down his face. Rolling off his chin, Dripping on his plaid shirt, But he never lifts his hand to wipe his eyes. People pause at the bags of gifts, And hurry past the tears. I take a deep puff, And do the same.

The Joke

I sit on a bench, Amused by knowing that it is my cigarette That gets me out of the office, Pushes me out amongst the living, To anthropologize in the park. I know I seem receptive, so when a man In raggedy clothes comes up to me It’s just a matter of waiting for the opening line. When it comes, it’s excellent. “Tell you a joke for a buck?” Cool, very cool . . . I hand him a dollar. He tells me a joke, But doesn’t finish it. And turns to walk away. I say, “Hey that wasn’t funny.” He says, “The punch-line will cost you five.” I laugh and give it to him. He laughs and tells me the punch-line. We both laugh and he walks away. It was an old joke, But I was happy to hear it again. It was worth the money To hear it told that way.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

More proof of my lack of compassion

The guilt had gotten to me. The guy in the wheelchair at North Station, the insistent quasimodos in Salvation Army uniforms tintinabulating at every street corner, the stocky old man in tattered jeans who sang to me, "I need some money, I need some money bad," had set me up. Stoically, with my eyes in a thousand-yard gaze mode, I had passed by them all. My hand in my pocket clutched my change to keep it from jingling. I felt awful. I was a liar and a cheat and an ungenerous son-of-a-bitch, but I had made it through the gauntlet with enough money for a cup of coffee and a hard roll. The coffee shop was steamy and friendly. They knew me. Usually I joke around a bit with the ladies there. This time I just smiled and grabbed my paper bag and left. I could see another panhandler on the corner so I cut through the alley to the next street and my office. The building was still locked, but, as I got out my keys I suddenly remembered a doctor's appointment this morning. I turned and headed for the subway. As I passed a doorway further down the street, someone stepped out. "Spare some change for a cup of coffee mister?" Her timing was perfect. I handed her the paper bag and said, "I'll do better than that, you can have this coffee." She shrank back and wouldn't touch the bag. For a moment I thought she was frightened. Then she said, "It's probably not black." I laughed. "Yes it is," I said and handed her the bag again. This time she took it and stepped backward into the doorway as I headed down the steps to the Red Line. Suddenly I heard her voice again. "Hey mister, didn't you get any butter for this hard roll."

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Green Line -- BU to Park Street

He sits, hand shielding his eyes against the snow-amplified sunlight. Then the trolley squeals into the tunnel. His commuter face set blankly against eye-contact, he lowers his hands to the back of the empty seat in front to brace against the sharp turns. The screech of brakes predicts a station. The dim light slides past the window, the glass so fogged and filthy that only vague shapes can be seen outside. Doors hiss open; bodies flow in. Deep in insularity he ignores the new passengers. Then he jerks in shock. His hands still clutch the top of the forward seat. Now a mass of brown curls, smelling sweetly of shampoo, cascades from under a raspberry colored knit cap and over his hands tickling sweetly. He starts to pull back from the intrusive sensation, but hesitates, and settles back in the seat looking at the hair. He blinks. A single tear reflects the fluorescents from the corner of his eye. He sits savoring the inadvertant contact. He glimpses her face in the window's reflection. It’s pleasant, blank, a commuter face. The stations ooze by outside, like a slow slide show. At one station he tenses and starts to stand, then settles back never taking his eyes off the curls. After two more stops, the woman turns her head and stands. Caught by surprise, he makes a small sound. She turns, looks down at him and at his hands. She smiles. The smile transforms her face. Momentarily she is startlingly beautiful. “Sorry,” she says. His mouth quirks at a corner. "It was nothing," he says.