Enter Laughing

My parents were a very funny couple. They were natural born comediennes and actors.. and the world was their stage.

When I was a child, I was often embarrassed about it. But now looking back I admire their joie de vie.

My father, especially, had to kibbutz with every waitress or cashier in sight. A walk from our car to a diner would take 3 times the time it should, since my father was kidding around with strangers or trying to make all the children giggle.

Dinner at a restaurant would take all night. My parents would tease the waitress, joke with the manager, and start a conversation with every table nearby.

I have a photo of them from a cruise that they took in the Caribbean, sometime in the 60s. There is a band playing and professional dancers up there dancing; somehow my fun-loving father is up there too, boogying to the beat.

My mother was also an extrovert, though a bit more reserved than dad. She was the straight man to his comedienne. But they both loved a big party, and more often than not, they’d create one even if it didn’t exist.

When my folks came to visit me once in California, they arrived at their hotel in SF a bit early. Rather than see the tourist sights (Fisherman’s Wharf, the Museum of Modern Art), they instead headed over to the nearest pub.

My parents had the time of their lives because a large group of sailors had arrived and come into the bar. My folks joined their table, as, I’m sure, they cajoled the sailors to spill the beans on their most salacious escapades.

I never thought that I was anything like my parents. I didn’t talk to strangers; I much preferred hanging out with a friend one-to-one rather than a party. I liked to read in my room or watch TV while my parents had a large group gathering in the den.

But over the years I have discovered that I am similar to them in many ways. One of which is that I find myself also kibbutzing with strangers.

Now there’s a big problem with this tendency that I inherited from my parents. I am in Berkeley. This isn’t exactly Comedy Central.

I don’t blame it on the actual residents. This is just not a funny place to live. Any moment, there can be a thug ripping off someone’s purse or a riot starting downtown. Almost everyone is imbibing doom-and-gloom news from NPR or from Facebook.

And also, there are so many disturbed and disturbing people around here, one never knows when you’re dealing with someone crazy. Out of the blue, some nutcase can start screaming expletives in a person’s face. So the general rule of thumb is keep your head down, don’t smile, and assume that a person is dangerous unless they prove otherwise (but get the heck out of there before they do).

Given this, it is very hard to be a joker around Berkeley. When I try, most of the time people just look at me, blank-faced. Here’s an example from today: I was at a small cafe which has some tasty evening specials. I went over to the counter and greeted the waitperson with a friendly smile and hello. . . though I received a tepid response.

I then said, “I just wanted to see what delicious foods you are offering today!!” Again, no reaction, just a stare, as the young man tried to figure out what was my angle.

Another time: I went into a Peet’s coffee shop and was eyeing the desserts (which, by the way, are fabulous). The young woman at the counter asked me, “Do you have any questions at all that I can answer?”

Well, that is a set-up for someone like me, the offspring of my late, mischievous parents. I said, “Yes, I do. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here?”

Unfortunately, the young woman couldn’t take a joke. She had obviously dealt with too many people harassing her, making fun of her, giving her a hard time, or whatever. She just glared at me. I added, “I’m just joking,” with a friendly smile. But that didn’t placate the woman who took my kidding as as personal affront.

That’s the problem around here. We’re all so easily offended, often for very good reasons. There are just too many people harassing others, giving them a hard time, even yelling and berating them. So one never knows when another person is acting in a benign, maybe even a playful manner.

It’s a hard way to live. . and I fall into the doldrums myself at times. A stranger may smile at me and I remain steely; there are times when someone is being nice, but I assume that they are “dissing” me. In this rough-and-tumble area, most people have developed a hard exterior to cope.

It’s challenging not to make that hardness a lifestyle. So I try, when I can, to channel my late parents’ good nature and love for life. A lot of times people just stare at me, confused. But occasionally I’ll get a laugh from someone and a good-natured response.

I know that a smile and a big laugh can perhaps frighten people. But maybe it can also make people feel our mutual humanity. It worked for my high-spirited parents throughout their lives; maybe it could work in Berkeley too.

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