Well, it’s like looking for a park bench. Picking up a book, I mean. If I find one I like, I tend to stick around to enjoy the vistas it opens, willing to overlook its more or less obvious faults. Otherwise, I move on fairly quickly, knowing that there are seats out there that suit me better. Sometimes, however, I get stuck on something that I did not reckon with, something that remains long after I left, like a bit of chewing gum you sat on and struggle to remove. It makes you work, it irritates you as it forces you to deal with it, and you remember it (rather than the bench to which it was appended) for just this unexpected bit of friction and activity. Let me give you a “for instance.”
Last weekend, I picked up Molly and Me, an autobiography by actress-playwright-businesswoman Gertrude Berg. For several decades, Ms. Berg was best known as Molly (or Mollie) Goldberg, a character she created and kept pushing from medium to medium, from print to stage, from radio to television. Now, I haven’t gotten to the point in the book where Molly comes to life. I got stuck on her pre-history, which, in Berg’s 1961 memoir, begins with her grandfather, Mordecai, a tinsmith who opened a store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (come to think of it, not all that far from the store where I bought the book last August).
The following piece of wisdom is that bit of gum I found myself struggling with. In an attempt to advertise his store, Mordecai carefully crafted a fine model of a steamship, five foot long and all made of tin. He placed it in the shop window in hopes of attracting customers. Sure, a few people stopped by and looked; but the time he spent on the display stood in no fair relation to the number of people he drew in. So, Mordecai decided on another way to dress his window: a cage with a wheel. In it, he placed a squirrel; and as it kept running in circles, people stopped by to look, far more than had been interested in the boat.
From that experience, Mordecai extracted a simple moral and applied it to all manner of situations, Berg explained:
Grandpa worked hard to make a boat that he was proud of. It was practically a masterpiece but what did people come to see? A squirrel running around in a cage! So what was the lesson? The lesson was, you can’t joint them, you can’t beat them, you can’t even understand them, so don’t bother. Hope for the best and maybe somebody’ll come in who’ll appreciate the boat. Meanwhile feed the squirrel, it’s not his fault.
Undoubtedly, this anecdote appealed to Ms. Goldberg, a popular wordsmith who found her niche by giving people—listeners and advertisers alike—what they wanted, even though what she came up with did not receive much respect as a craft, let alone as an art: the soap opera. Mordecai, you sure got me thinking. Keeping this journal, I wonder whether I should not tear apart the boat I put together and settle instead for a squirrel in a cage . . .