— Booker T. Washington
Educator, author & orator
(1856 to 1915)
Not since a much beloved co-worker at the former Maytag Corporation stumbled over an embarrassing twist of words have I laughed so hard.
Her spoken, and quite errant, miscue came 10 years ago in my Human Resources Department office. It was one of those humdingers made even worse in its hilarity by the fact that this ultraconservative and ever-so-beautiful lady today is now a widely respected associate pastor in a Cleveland church.
Her comical twist of tongue involved words that I’ll not repeat here. Such disclosure not only would embarrass her, but could cost this newspaper its “G” rating. Let’s just say her misplaced vocabulary — at least, for this isolated incident — was better suited coming from the mouth of a drunken sailor or from the pained outcry of a Major League Baseball manager screaming in the face of a home plate umpire.
But let me be clear.
I was laughing “with” my dear friend, not “at” her. She was screeching just as raucously from the visitor’s chair in front of my desk. The harder one of us laughed, the louder it got for the other. How either of us escaped falling from our chairs I’ll never know.
Let’s just say it was one of those moments, one that we still get a chuckle over any time, and every time, that life allows our paths to cross. She was an endearing lady then. She remains an endearing lady today. Not too many months ago she sat in my newspaper office and we relived some of those comically priceless memories.
That kind of stomach-hurting, rib-lurching laughter — the kind where you lose your breath as well as your capacity to speak — is one of nature’s finest medicines. And if we’re lucky, it comes at a time when we need it most.
It happened again last Thursday at about 6:50 a.m.
By the calendar, Thursday is not a bad day for laughing because it’s only a 24-hour leap from Friday. But at 6:50 a.m., I don’t laugh. I’m not supposed to.
I am a newspaper editor. I frown.
I am a newspaper editor who is still in the middle of his first cup of coffee, taken from the can of one of those light 50/50 blends that are high in decaf and low in wakeup. So I frown a lot.
I am a newspaper editor who lives, and will one day die, from the hand of deadlines. And that’s even more reason to frown.
One of the fringes — that’s as good a word as any, I guess — of being a newspaper editor is I get to talk on live radio, about three times a week, with Mark Grissom and his ensemble of co-hosts during the “Mark in the Morning” show on WOOP-FM. For the curious, I think that’s 99.9 on your dial.
At about 6:50 each morning, he calls. I answer ... sometimes ... depending on the level of morning chaos in the newsroom and the degree of impact from the first cup of 50/50.
He asks questions. I give answers. Sometimes they are even correct.
He vents about the latest travesty — whether local, national or global. I weigh in, but always careful to distinguish between newspaper opinion and that of my own. It keeps the boss happy. And when the boss is happy, everybody’s happy. It’s much like a marriage.
On this day, Mark’s co-host was a lovely lady whose broadcast nickname is simply “Mama Hazy.” I don’t know the story. But in real life, she is Jackie Rumble. She’s a wife, a loving mom and an endearing grandmom. And she plays each role quite well.
I’ve talked with her on the air many times. I’ve met her once. At Mark’s invitation, I had dropped by one morning as a guest of the WOOPsters. During that inaugural visit, Mama Hazy and I almost settled for the traditional handshake, but wound up sharing a warm hug.
Like I said, she’s a beautiful lady — inside and out.
Last Thursday, Mark and Mama Hazy (I’m hoping this spelling of “Hazy” is correct) were already sharing a laugh over a story she told earlier in the show. It involved her pronunciation of an item on the menu board at a Mexican restaurant drive-through.
Already having admitted on-air that she doesn’t speak Spanish nor is she fluent in reading it, this precious lady of the hacienda ordered quesadillas; you know, those cheese-filled tortilla treats that serve as their own food group in Latino eateries everywhere.
Phonetically, quesadillas is pronounced “keh/sah/THEE/yahs.” Putting an unversed American spin on her order, Mama Hazy pronounced it “quazadillos.” In print, the madcap pronunciation loses its impact. But hearing it over the radio waves is a whole different matter.
And the slapstick response from the restaurant workers manning the drive-through station, as shared by Mama Hazy, was apparently as animated as Arte Johnson falling from his tricycle in the old TV comedy “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” from the late ’60s and early ’70s.
As Mama Hazy told the story, I was en route to work via the bypass. Upon hearing her pronunciation, I roared. Divine intervention is all that kept my car from swerving off the roadway. In the name of public safety, I recovered and steered my way to the office.
About 45 minutes later, I answered that day’s WOOP phone call from Mark and Mama.
“Hey, I did something entirely different last night,” I told Mark (loosely quoting myself) early in the dialogue.
“Oh? What?” the DJ asked.
“I took the entire newsroom staff to supper,” I replied.
“Where’d you take ’em?” he inquired.
“It’s a little restaurant here in town ... they had a new item on the menu,” I said. “So we each had a plate full.”
“What was it?”
“Quazadillos!” I roared, and lost all sense of composure in a non-editor like fit of laughter. The heaving pain in my ribs came in great spasms. I could not speak. I could barely breathe.
The bedlam on the phone’s other end seemed just as loud, from both Mark and Mama. Whether either rolled to the floor from their chairs, I cannot say. But truly, it was one of those moments — one they had enjoyed earlier in the show and now were reliving less than an hour later.
I could even hear Joe Cannon laughing outside my office from his corner of the newsroom.
In the deepest spirit of friendship, we were laughing “with” Mama Hazy and not “at” her. It was a comical moment in the life of a very special lady who took the time to laugh at herself.
Like I said, the story loses some luster in its print edition. Or maybe I’m just not a good storyteller.
But I do know this.
Fate brings us gifts that we least expect. At a time when this editor was overstressed from unmet deadlines and underfueled from a 50/50 morning blend, laughter was the best medicine.
As was the case with my Maytag co-worker who brought a smile to my face 10 years earlier, Mark and Mama Hazy escorted its return.
Some say life is a treasure. I will not disagree.
But in every chest of jewels, the precious diamond will outshine the rest. For me, laughter is that sparkling stone. It doesn’t come often, but when it does the bling can outlast the light of a thousand suns.
While writing this column later that same day, a young newsroom staffer walked in.
“Why are you smiling?” she asked, her face wearing the perplexity of youth.
Turning to face her befuddled brow, my reply was succinct yet unplanned.
“Quazadillos,” I explained. “... Quazadillos.”
Her expression was my reward.