READY: If only I had thought to say …
The French call it l’esprit d’escalier or “the wit of the staircase.” In their esoteric French way, they mean those witty responses that are thought of just seconds too late, when you’re on your way out of the room, descending the stairs. You’ve lost the opportunity to put your tormentor in his place. Your brilliant “should-have-said” will never see the light of day because you said nothing- or worse — you said something pitifully lame.
It seems whenever I write a non-fluffy column touching on some serious or controversial topic, the haters come out of the woodwork to tell me what a horrible person I am with no regard for truth telling. When the hateful comments are online, I reply politely with as much civility as I can muster. I even thank them for being a reader.
What I REALLY want to reply would neither be polite nor civil. It would be quite snarky with generous sprinklings of “moron,” “jerk,” “clueless,” etc.
But that’s not me.
I wish I had the gift of wit from the staircase, responding with some snappy comeback that brings a verbal bully to his knees without resorting to vulgarity or clichés.
I dug up a few one-liners:
1) The fact that no one understands you doesn't mean you're a genius.
2) I don't know what your problem is, but I'll bet it's hard to pronounce.
3) Any connection between your reality and mine is purely coincidental.
4) I like you. You remind me of when I was young and stupid.
5) Yes, I am an agent of Satan, but my duties are largely ceremonial.
6) I'll try being nicer if you'll try being smarter.
7) I don't have an attitude problem. You have a perception problem.
8) Attacking me does not define who I am; it defines who you are
9) You should do some soul-searching; maybe you’ll find one
10) You’d think with your multiple personalities, at least one would be likeable
When a friend asked me directly what I thought of his self-published novel, I said it would require “an audience that enjoys an intellectual challenge.” (Translation: It’s almost impossible to read.) I didn’t have the heart to say, as Dorothy Parker once said of a friend’s work: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
Several years ago, around two o’clock in the morning, the phone woke me from a sound sleep. Caller ID showed Alabama area code 256. The angry female caller let loose a string of filthy words, demanding to know why this phone number was in her husband’s wallet and how long he’d been cheating on her. I listened to her tirade for a few minutes and then hung up. Ten minutes later, she called again with more unprintable ranting. My response was merely, “Ma’am, you’ve got the wrong number.” The third time she called, I let the phone ring. But I couldn’t go back to sleep for thinking of two totally different things I could’ve said.
The darker side of me might have responded, “He has my number because we’re having a red hot affair, and he’s gonna marry me as soon as he dumps you.” But then, she might have shot the poor schmuck, so that was a bad idea.
The nicer me should’ve said, “Ma’am, this is charter boat Second Chance. Perhaps your husband was planning to take you out on a surprise fishing trip or a romantic evening cruise. I’m sure there’s a perfectly innocent reason he has this Destin number in his wallet.”
But I can’t come up with witty material on short notice, especially in the pre-dawn hours.
Sometimes, having the right response is a matter of humanity.
In a restaurant some time ago, a shabbily dressed old man was trying to get the attention of a man sitting near him. The busy career man, working at his laptop while eating, ignored the old gentleman, carefully avoiding eye contact. On leaving, he paused at the young man’s table and simply stated, “My wife died a few weeks ago, and it’s really lonely.” Looking up briefly, he mumbled something like, “Sorry to hear that.” After the old man walked away, the younger fellow thought of all the things he could have done, could have said. He regretted not having offered him a seat and a listening ear. Anything to ease the old man’s loneliness. But he didn’t.
That lost opportunity has haunted him ever since.
Mary Ready of Destin is a twice-retired English teacher and long-time area resident. Her columns are published on Saturdays.