Miss Stewart Didn’t Appreciate Damon Runyon

Let’s get this small detail out of the way.  I didn’t like school. {Well… thinking back on it, I was OK with recess, gym & art.}  From my earliest memory, anything remotely close to the academic side of school filled me with anxiety. Two examples:  I had trouble with cursive… particularly with the upper case letters.  And the times table terrified me.

As I ascended the ladder of education did I outgrow this revulsion to learning?  In a brief word.  No. More to the point, my anxiety – heaps of worry & fear of failure – would only be magnified and multiplied as I moved from the lower grades to high school.

{For years I have tried unsuccessfully to cast my school boy days in a positive light:  blue skies, puffy white clouds, humming birds speeding between hedges of honeysuckle, the smell of thick burgers with a decent fat content getting a good char on a grill…}

Sadly, I have been unable to escape the dread of school that grips my soul.  Why… why fifty years plus since I walked down the aisle to receive my diploma from Hamden Hall Country Day School in 1967, and then four years later my B.A. from Union, am I still haunted by horrific dreams (nay, nightmares) about school?

These are horrible, horrible night time visions.  I am in a classroom and I know that I am ill-prepared for the day’s class assignment, and I sit there scared shitless that I will be called on to answer a question.  OR, I’m late and heading for class and I forget which class I am supposed to go to, nor where the classroom is!  OR, I forget my combination to my school P.O. Box! OR, {and I’ve saved the best for last} I have blown off two of my three classes of the spring trimester at Union, and there is no way that I will be graduating with my class! What am I going to say to my parents?!

{Do you lose weight if you sweat profusely at night while sleeping?  Another brief word.  No.}

But there I am at 2:00am during a random night, bathed in sweat because my parents just learned that I wouldn’t be graduating with Union’s Class of ’71. First, I did graduate.  And, second, even if I hadn’t graduated without my parents knowing, and even if I had spent the night in perspiration, I could find joy in spending a brief interlude with my parents who watched this unfortunate tragedy from “above”.

In spite of my inherent distaste for any form of study, by my Senior year at Hamden Hall I discovered the writing of Damon Runyon (1880 – 1946).  I’m guessing my Dad introduced his short stories to me (he, who had also taught me how to play gin*).  There was a rustic authenticity to Runyon’s tales that were set in Prohibition New York City.  There were hilarious episodes with wonderful characters, and even more important, Runyon had a casual disregard for grammar.  Among his literary quirks, he shunned the use of contractions, he avoided past and future tenses using the present for both.  He also dodged using the conditional by replacing it with the future indicative, “Now most any doll on Broadway will be very glad indeed to have Handsome Jack Madigan give her a tumble.”

How could you not love stories populated by folks with the names like: Nathan Detroit, Sky Masterson, Nicely-Nicely, Harry the Horse, Benny Southstreet, Big Jule and Miss Adelaide.  And then the period, off-beat vocabulary: a handgun referred to as a “John Roscoe” or an “equalizer.”

And he was an expert in crafting the perfect, yet understated, punchline.  Here is some advice from Sky Masterson:

“One of these days in your travels, a guy shows you a brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken.  Then this guy offers to bet you that he can make the Jack of Spades jump out of the brand-new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear. But son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you are ending up with an ear full of cider.”

These stories, frequented by con-artists, bootleggers, gamblers, mild thugs & ladies of questionable virtue, were so far removed from the 25 Alston Ave of my home in New Haven.  But these extraordinary short stories captured me.

I adored Runyon.  Miss Stewart, my English teacher in 12th Grade, not so much.  But when the assignment to write a major paper on an American Author, I chose Damon Runyon.  And poor Miss Stewart of lace collar and cardigan sweater sensibility had to square Silas Marner,  Hester Prynne and Captain Ahab with Nathan Detroit?  What could I – interested in a solid grade – hope for? I must have been nuts! Runyon, a perfect mirror of time and place, possessing an astute ear for spoken texture and dialogue, and who routinely flushed syntax down the toilet?

Maybe Miss Stewart had to swallow hard to give me a decent grade on that paper.  Although I am willing to bet dollars to donuts that she had never read a word of Runyon before I put him before her.  Nor would she have been enamored of his writing as I was.  So be it.

I consider Damon Runyon a small light of happiness in an otherwise gloomy experience in High School English Lit.  Other than Runyon, I never read a single book of any stripe that wasn’t assigned in course work (and that included College).

After Union I would learn to love reading.  First, the 19th Century Russian novelists that I took to reading during my days at Ft. Gordon, GA.  Then, on to the works of John Irving, Wm. Styron, Anthony Burgess and a superb collection of writers who contributed to the New Yorker.

But looking back, I have to peevishly giggle at the thought of Miss Stewart rolling her eyes as she read a selection of Runyon’s prose that I would have included in my paper: “I am not putting the knock on dolls.  It’s just that they are something to have around only when they come in handy.  Like cough drops.”

n.b. In my day we didn’t have “Language Arts” in school.  We had “English.”

I passed on my gin playing skills to my Daughter Shaina when she attained the age of 10 (maybe less).  And I have just had the pleasure of teaching her Daughter Olivia (aged 10) the game during an extended family trip.  Instruction included seminars on “The Tactical Use of Knocking”, “The Defensive Hand”, and “The Essentials of Distracting Gab”.  

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1 Response to Miss Stewart Didn’t Appreciate Damon Runyon

  1. Marc Reisinger says:

    Mr. Winston, I was curious where you found that black and white picture of CHIPP in the Ivy Style Article?

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