Feed on

Colorful Yarns

So, I’m reading two different books these days. On the fiction side of the table sits John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday. On the nonfiction side (or at least autobiography/memoir) is Richard Feynman’s memoir, “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!”

I’ve already written about how I’ve come to appreciate Steinbeck but I will reiterate: for those of you who were forced to read The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice And Men and drug your heels, I heartily recommend that you read Cannery Row, a story about a bunch of derelict misfits who throw a disastrous party, Travels With Charlie, Steinbeck’s personal memoir of an epic roadtrip taken with only his French Poodle as a copilot, or the book I’m reading right now, Sweet Thursday. Steinbeck was a hell of a storyteller; you’ll read an example of that in just a minute.

Last night, I was reading along in Thursday and came across the following recounting of some curious neighbors who once resided adjacent to Fauna’s brothel-cum-finishing-school:

At about a quarter to three, Agnes and Mabel and Becky were relaxing in the Ready Room. It was a time of languor. The vacant lot was washed in clear pale sunshine, which made even the rusty pipes and the old boiler look beautiful. The tall mallow weeds were as sweetly green as a garden. A sleek, gray, lazy Persian cat hunted gophers in the grass and didn’t care whether she caught one or not.

Mabel stood at the window. She said, “I heard some people used to live in that old boiler.”

Agnes was painting her toenails and waving her feet to dry the enamel. “That’s before your time, ” she said. “Mr. and Mrs. Malloy, they had it fixed up nice – awning out front, oriental rug. Once you got inside, thought the firedoor, it was real nice. Shee was a homemaker.”

“Why’d they leave?” Becky asked.

“They got to arguing. She kept wanting curtains. He wouldn’t let her because there wasn’t no windows. When they argued it kind of echoed in there and got on their nerves. He said there wasn’t room inside to take a swing at her. He’s in the county jail now – trusty. Mrs. Mallow’s slinging hash in a grease joint over at Salinas, waiting for him to get out. They was real nice people. He’s a high Elk.”

Anyone who can spin a yarn like that is worth a read, if you ask me.

And speaking of colorful yarns, Feynman’s memoirs (mind you, I’m only maybe a fifth of the way into the volume) are as variegated as you could wish. In the section I was reading this evening when I got home from work, he’s explaining how in his college years, pranks and experiments kind of blurred and a certain degree of outrageous showmanship drove him to prove things to his college buddies that they probably never knew they needed to have confirmed.

(my note – the magic shows he writes about took place when Feynman was around 12 – this will be important toward the end of this passage)

We used to put on magic shows – chemistry magic – for the kids on the block. My friend was a pretty good showman and I kind of liked that too. We did our tricks on a little table with Bunsen burners at each end going all the time. On the burners we had watch glass plates (flat glass discs) with iodine on them which made a beautiful purple vapor that went up on each side of the table while the show went on. It was great! We did a lot of tricks, such as turning “wine” into water and other chemical color changes. For our finale, we did a trick that used something we had discovered. I would put my hands (secretly) first into a sink of water, then into benzine. Then I would “accidentally” brush by one of the Bunsen burners, and one hand would light up. I’d clap my hands, and both hands would then be burning. (It doesn’t hurt because it burns fast and the water keeps it cool.) Then I’d wave my hands, running around yelling “FIRE! FIRE!” and everybody would get all excited. They’d run out of the room and that was the end of the show!

Later on, I told this story at college to my fraternity brothers and they said, “Nonsense! You can’t do that!”

(I often had this problem of demonstrating to these fellas something that they couldn’t believe – like the time we got into an argument as to whether urine just ran out of you by gravity, and I had to demonstrate that that wasn’t the case by showing them that you can pee standing on your head…)

“All right, guys,” I said. “Let’s go out and get some benzine.”

They got the benzine ready, I stuck my hand in the water in the sink and then into the benzine and lit it…and it hurt like hell! You see, in the meantime I had grown hairs on the back of my hand which acted like wicks and held the benzine in place while it burned, whereas when I had done it earlier I had no hairs on the back of my hand. After I did the experiment for my fraternity brothers I didn’t have any hairs on the back of my hands either.

So, these are the kinds of things that I am reading right now and finding it to be fine summer entertainment.

2 Responses to “Colorful Yarns”

  1. kim says:

    Yeah, that Feynman was a neat guy and quite a renaissance man wasn’t he. I’ve read Surely youre Joking, and also “What Do You Care What Other People Think… the second one details his first marriage, its quite a love story.. and sad too. There was also a movie made called Infinity, and it was pretty good.

  2. meetzorp says:

    I’m looking forward to reading that one. I’ll have to check it out from the library next time I am in there.

Leave a Reply