The funniest line in literature comes from Carl Sandburg’s “Potato Face Blind Man” stories, where he describes the reason for the wooden mug: “There is a hole in the bottom of it. The hole is as big as the bottom. The nickel goes in and comes out again. It is for the very poor people who wish to give me a nickel and yet get the nickel back.”
Satire has often been overly-discussed, and attempting to explain why a particular scene, line or story is amusing, is somewhat like trying to explain to a Martian why Bradbury’s chronicles fascinated the young: it just is, and either you get it, or you don’t. It is, perhaps, the incongruence between expectation and reality; of a projection of incommensurability that occurs when a portrayal doesn’t quite meet the anticipation of “should”.
In Sandburg’s description, two such anomalies occur: First, that the figure who holds the mug does so with the expectation that passersby will drop a nickel out of a sense of pity; but second, and poignantly portrayed, that the tables are turned around by the one who allegedly is begging for the nickel, in that he recognizes the empathetic component that there are others who are poorer in the world who also want to give, but needs the nickel more than the beggar to whom it is given. Thus, the hole on the bottom where the nickel given drops back for the giver, yet the act of giving has been consummated.
Of course, in modernity, perhaps such innocence of satiric portrayal is no longer thought to contain humor; that, as the ethics of inequality and financial disparity have given rise to resentment, and the inane concept of “fairness” today pervades the political spectrum throughout, the focus would be upon the fact of maliciously describing a person with a disability in terms which might betray mocking jest. But that is clearly not what Sandburg meant by it; and, indeed, it was because he believed that his generation lacked children’s stories which taught lessons of virtue and behavioral uprightness, that he engaged the literary device of satire.
Life itself is difficult enough without undermining the joy of a joke recognized. A funny line, a witty scene, a belly-laugh from a picture of incongruence; such moments allow for innocence and the lightness of being to prevail as an interlude to an otherwise dreary continuum of surviving in a world which shows but cold shoulders twisted and followed by phony smiles to cut the throats of back-turned bystanders.
Such experiences, of course, are not new to the Federal employee or U.S. Postal worker who suffers through the meanness of workplace hostility and harassment at the hands of supervisors and coworkers, merely because a medical condition prevents the Federal or Postal worker from performing one or more of the essential elements of his or her positional duties. Whether under FERS, CSRS or CSRS Offset, there comes a time when the Federal or Postal worker must decide to prepare an effective Federal Disability Retirement application, to be filed with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, in order to escape the diatribes of the Federal agency or the U.S. Postal Service.
Carl Sandburg’s joke was of a time when true empathy was understood by all; unfortunately, in modernity, the nickel which was meant to be returned to the giving passerby, would today be snatched up by wolves in waiting, where the lambs who once roamed the hillside of life’s joke no longer gather upon the pastures of a forgotten innocence forever lost.
Robert R. McGill, Esquire