Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor
Seventy years later, some still insist it couldn’t have happened. It did…and I should know. After all, it’s my own pants we’re talking about here.
The year it happened was 1947 C.E., more or less. I’m four years old, or a bit to one side or the other of it, and I walk up the flight of black metal stairs with raised dimples on the treads for traction, and hand rails fashioned from black pipe. The exterior, exposed staircases are on the outside rear of every two or three story apartment building in the neighborhood. Kitchens are entered from the landings on each floor.
I enter ours, and am not surprised to see my mother–she lives here and was home a half hour earlier–though she’s surprised to see my pants; i.e., the front of them, a bit below the waist.
“How did your pants get wet, Sweetheart?” she says to me, beginning the sort of inquiry that mothers must have engaged in since Homo sapiens first began wearing clothing that included something like pants.
“Josh Lester tee-ceed in them,” I say.
I wouldn’t have said anything else. Two things to keep in mind: Josh Lester was a neighborhood kid my older brother’s age, seven, or a bit to one side of it or the other; and “tee-cee” (best translated as “pee”) was used, in our family’s oral and written English, as a verb or noun.
“Josh Lester tee-ceed in your pants? Sweetheart…how did your pants get wet?”
“Josh Lester tee-ceed in them.”
And there you have it. This story, among several others, would become “one of those stories”: the ones retold during extended family dinners, when reminiscence, served either hot or cold, is the main course. The Josh Lester incident would acquire an exceptional dinner table status, even eclipsing, “When we visited your father in basic training, you were a year and a half old, and you threw your adorable seersucker overalls out the rear car window because you hated them. We didn’t notice what you were doing until we turned around and you were naked.”
The retelling of “Josh Lester” continued through my childhood, my teens, well into my twenties, and beyond. It continues today, and I’m seventy-four. Truth be told–and here it is being–it did hurt when I was a little kid and my family continued to insist over the years that my version of how my pants got wet was a little child’s flight of fancy. It was nothing to them but a cute story…which it was and, in a way, still is.
However, as a teenager and beyond (far beyond, as I have mentioned) I had a tendency to respond with sarcasm or anger, or both, to those who doubted my veracity. This seems to have been ineffective, since others at the table were either entertained or merely dismissive (“Isn’t that remarkable? He still thinks it happened. Just pass the brisket, please.”) You can take only so much of that kind of family reminiscence before you’re compelled to resort to, “I never did it, and someone else can pass you the brisket.” Just how many times would you have said, “Josh Lester did it,” before you wanted to jump out the window nearest to your family’s dinner table?
Now that I mention it, what’s the deal about windows and me? Could it be that I wanted to escape…just get the hell out of there, wherever “there” was? Here’s what I mean. It happened when in my early forties as our extended family and guests sat at a Passover Seder table at my aunt and uncle’s house –on the very evening when I had hoped to be led out of bondage and persecution. A friend of the family, who had observed more than twice as many Passovers in her life as I had in mine, claimed to have been a substitute teacher in my high school, and I jumped out of the window during her class. Assuming (as I don’t) she had been a substitute teacher in my class, it’s also safe to assume I would have wanted to jump. As she recounted the story, I had my eye on the easy-to-open, double hung, dining room window, only a few feet off the ground.
Since I’m being honest here, I guess it’s possible that it happened as the Passover guest said it had. Only a few years after graduating high school, I was confronted with another window that…well, I ask you, what would you have done had your college French professor refused your request to leave the classroom? Would you have just sat there (especially having failed to read the two chapter in La Silence de la Mer) at the same time Abiodun, a foreign student, was performing a Nigerian warrior dance in the student union, accompanied by a jazz band and your buddy Henry was the drummer? And you were going to miss that in favor of a bucket of French irregular verbs? Incroyable!
Since I’m still being honest here, I should mention that the persistence of the cute little “Josh Lester” story, to some extent had been, I won’t say “my fault,” but I would say “my own doing.” Perhaps out of self-defense, perhaps to persecute the persecutors (but certainly to do my best to drive them nuts,) by the time I was a teenager, I had perfected the technique of answering even a legitimate “Who did?” or “How did?” or “Why did” question–such as, “How did the car door get dented?”–with “Josh Lester did it.” When the occasion called for it, I would employ the more elaborate and, if I do say so myself, highly creative, “Josh Lester made me do it.”
The tactic still works. I’ve never had to carry the equivalent of the largest model of the Swiss Army knife, the one with a different blade or tool for each and every annoying question. All I’ve needed in tight situations, like a family dinner or a police station, is a tiny pocket knife with one blade to answer any of the questions I’d rather ignore.
The problem–assuming it’s a problem, at all–is at age seventy-four, I can’t seem to change my habit. I mean, who could when there are so many questions that require so many answers? It’s like when a childhood friend (who has heard about Josh Lester many times) recently pestered me with why I hadn’t written him in months, all I needed to say was, “It ought to be obvious.” And when he said, “Not this time….uhuh…no way…don’t tell me Josh Lester made you do it,” all I needed to say was, “Of course he did; who else could it have been?”
And consider how easy it is to answer so many of those vexatious questions, such as, “Who put the humming bird feeder in the sink?” (Hint: “J.L.”) and, “Who tracked garden dirt onto the kitchen floor when he put the humming bird feeder in the sink?” (Hint: “J.L.”) However, there are those special instances when it’s just plain unnecessary (and very much against self-interest) to employ the “J.L.” ruse. For example, “Who put that absolutely beautiful bouquet on my dresser?” must be answered in one way only: “Well, I do have to admit that it wasn’t Josh Lester.”
I could share a lot more of the history of our family dinner table, but all of that can wait. At the moment, you’ll enjoy learning what happened about ten years ago, sixty years after Josh Lester’s transgression.
My younger brother (who hadn’t been born at the time I had entered the kitchen with wet pants, thanks to you-know-who) phones me and says, “I saw Josh Lester the other day. He’s a psychiatrist and I ran into him after one of my psychoanalysis training sessions. He asked about our older brother, and Mom and Dad, and then we started talking about where we grew up, the old neighborhood, and all that. So I told him about our family story, and that no one ever believed you.”
“But, what did Josh Lester the psychiatrist say about that?”
“That’s what I called to tell you. He said, ‘You know, I’ve learned a lot about myself. I probably did pull down your brother’s pants and pee in them.’”
“And that’s it?” I say to my brother. “Hell, I could have told you that.”