My sister and I were in the elevator at the Mayo Clinic one day last week, riding to the lobby. As we approached our stop, there were only four of us in the elevator — my sister and I and an older married couple. There is an automated voice that announces at which floor the elevator is stopping. It’s a woman’s voice, and it sounds something like Katherine Hepburn in her younger days (“The calla lilies are in bloom again” — Stage Door, 1937), especially when the elevator approaches the lobby and she announces, “Lobby Level” in a seductive, yet cultured, voice.
We always laugh when she says it, and this time was no exception. Then the gentleman in the elevator with us said, deadpan, “Did I miss Lingerie?”
Of course to understand the joke, you have to have at one time in your life had a ride on a department store elevator operated by a real person, who started and stopped the elevator at each floor and announced which departments were on the approaching floor. I, at my advanced age, am old enough to remember elevator rides in big city department stores when I was a teenager and elevator operators were part of the experience. I don’t remember Winona’s Choates Department Store having an elevator operator, but I assume at one time it did. But with only three floors, and everyone in a 50-mile radius knowing the layout of the store inside and out, the operator probably announced departments just to keep up appearances. Besides, most people took the stairs.
To be able to “get” a joke, it has to refer to something we are familiar with. Once John told a joke to a group including his sister Nancy and friend of hers who had come to visit from France. The French girl’s English was serviceable, but not fluent.
The joke went like this, and remember, I didn’t tell it, John did.
Stash was going to go fishing for crappies, and called his friend Ole to come along, promising lots of smoked carp and some beer to wash it down. Ole said, “Gee, Stash, I don’t know, I got a case of diarrhea.” Stash said, “That’s great, Ole, bring that along, too!”
In order to get the joke, you have to understand that it is a play on the many different meanings of the word “case” in English. The French girl didn’t get it, so John urged Nancy to translate it into French. That didn’t seem to clarify things for her at all. Then Nancy admitted she didn’t “get” the joke, so John had to explain it to her! Oh, ha ha!
We were with my granddaughter Andie, 3, when John leaned over to tickle her knee affectionately. “Keep your hands to yourself!” she said. Then she explained that’s what her teacher said. “Why did she say that?” we asked. “We were in line for lunch,” she answered. “Did she say it only to you?” we asked, trying to get to the facts — was Andie being naughty? “No, she said it to me and my…” She paused, looking for the word. “She said it to me and my people!”
We all laughed, because she sounded to us like a Hollywood producer, talking about her “people.” But it must be confusing to start school and have to learn all the new school language. She’s never had occasion until a few weeks ago to know words like “classmates” and she doesn’t know the kids well enough to call them her “friends.” So, “people” seemed a good choice to her. I wonder how she figured out what “keep your hands to yourself” means? I wonder when she will have learned enough about her own language to “get” jokes?