by Eric Darton
Once upon a time, say five years ago, the world was filled with endless Pincus the Tailor jokes. At least you understood the supply to be limitless. You see, S. told you two, maybe three of them and somehow you got the impression that the well of Pincus jokes was bottomless — the few you’d heard represented only the tip — the visible apex of a fabulous mass of Pincuses floating hidden in the midnight sea.
What had you seen? A couple of threads. What did you assume? Whole cloth. The other day, when you asked S. to tell you some more Pincus jokes, it turned out that she only remembered the two you’d already heard. The third one, she speculates, might be another of her Jewish jokes that you retroactively Pincus-ized.
What caused you to imagine a fantastic abundance of Pincus jokes? Some of it may have had to do with the generous mode of S.’s telling, from which you inferred that there were lots more jokes where those came from. But what converted your appreciation of two jokes into a belief in Pincus as a symbol of the infinite was the simple desire that Pincus be not so much immortal as ever-recurring, each joke dying yet imminently reborn, deepening with each repetition and variation until they took on the character of a late Rembrandt self-portrait — the sort of painting you hoped your soul would come to resemble in its old age.
Never assume. That’s what Tom DeMattis, your Emergency Medicine teacher said once. It makes an ass of u and an ass of me. But how to live a life without assumptions, those single-minded creatures born of need? And most particularly the need to have actuality conform to your desire in a way that may be altogether insupportable and which no amount of wishing makes so.
It’s one thirty-seven a.m. You can’t sleep, certainly not next to your beloved. At least not tonight. It just won’t work. Your legs cramp. You can’t figure out why she doesn’t turn around, hold you and apologize. Perhaps she can’t. Any more than you can imagine her incapacity to imagine how her unkindness caught you behind the knees, yet you had to try to keep walking, just to keep a little dignity. Wearing your thin coat. Out of a Gogol story. It’s all you’ve got.
Pincus, he ought to be able to help you through. He’s joined in your mind with S., but really, she was the door-opener. It was you who took Pincus and made an idol of him. And despite your disappointment — your anticipated delivery of those million jokes — you recognize that the act of door-opening is no small thing. Just because someone opens a door doesn’t mean they’re going to walk across the threshold with you, does it?
A visitor from out of town, you see, has lost his luggage, his dress suit along with it. On top of which, he must make an important speech that same evening. What a fix! Recognizing his plight, a well-meaning person advises him go see Pincus, from whom the desperate man bespeaks a suit of beautiful worsted. Pincus won’t take any measurements though, just says “Come back in an hour.”
When the customer returns, the suit is ready. He tries it on to find that it is cut all wrong — one leg’s too short, the other’s too long. The sleeves are lopsided as well. No time for alterations, so Pincus shows the man how to hold one arm up, stretch his neck out, turn his leg just so, tells him he looks like a million. Off the man goes to make his speech, filled with confidence in his appearance. When he walks out on stage twisted up like a pretzel, a guy in the audience turns to his neighbor and says: Poor bastard. To which the neighbor replies: Yeah, but he’s got one hell of a tailor!
Now your coat’s a joke, and what makes the joke richer is that you cling to it. Nothing but threads. And on closer inspection no one is at fault. Don’t blame the Lord. Don’t blame the Tailor. Just wear it. See? Even now you hardly feel its weight. Given time, to Pincus all glory goes.
Eric Darton is the author of the New York Times bestseller Divided We Stand, a cultural history of the World Trade Center, (Basic Books, 1999). His other books are the novels Free City (WW Norton, 1996) and Orogene (EDB, 2009) and the story cycle Beaky Chronicles (2008). Darton’s latest book is Things Fall Together (EDB, 2010), the first volume of his five-volume cultural journal Notes of a New York Son, 1995-2007. Read more at his website.