By Matthew Wallenstein
My father has a way of saying things. He has all these phrases and sayings and words that are foreign to most everyone. He swears up and down that they are established, if not common, turns of phrase. Over the years he has managed to show me a few are not entirely his own idiosyncrasies. Many remain dubious. I like them either way. Some of my favorites are his insults.
He used to work in an old brick building off Main Street, in a room full of large machines. There was a French-Canadian who worked with him. He would get guff from the other guys about his accent and his manner, about his French.
When he’d had enough, the French-Canadian would say, “You talk like a man with a paper asshole.”
My father says this to me when I bother him with opinions he doesn’t like.
When my dad was in the navy, stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, he was dating a topless go-go dancer. If I bring this up in front of people he tells the story of the time there was a party at his house the night Percy Sledge, my fathers favorite singer, was playing in town. His go-go dancer girlfriend, by his account, was a beautiful woman who dripped charm. She managed to win over Sledge and get him to come back to my dad’s house. She was intending to surprise him. But my father had to work his shift waiting tables, and didn’t get out until the party was over and Percy had left. He came back home to bottles and glasses, to filled ashtrays, to his girl telling him what he’d missed.
The restaurant where he worked was an expensive, classy spot. He was a waiter there in his free time when he wasn’t on base. His favorite coworker was H, a wrinkled black man with a genuine smile. When a customer stiffed H he would go back to the kitchen, take some whiskey from his coat and angrily call them a sucker’s kittens. He’d say, those cheap sucker’s kittens, and take a sip. He’d say, those good for nothin’ sucker’s kittens, and take a swig. He’d say, those goddamn sucker’s kittens, and he take a pull.
My father had a lot of affection for him. Now and again he would buy him a bottle of his favorite whiskey and slip it into a pocket in H’s coat. My father calls people sucker’s kittens when he feels they ripped him off.
When he returned to New Hampshire from the Navy, he worked at a youth detention center. I was born a decade or so after his stint there. A few times when I was young, former prisoners stopped by to say hello to my dad, let him know how they were doing. I remember a time one had come by and done just that. We were in my dad’s truck and he was driving to the airport to drop the guy off. He kept saying to my dad, that guy was such a snake in the grass, a real snake in the grass. My dad would laugh as he said it. You remember that? You remember you’d call them all snakes in the grass? He said to my father.
Snake in the grass is another phrase he still uses. He applies it to swindlers, suckers, jerks, and most often politicians. I was accused of being a snake in the grass when I hid all his ice cream. During his term Donald Trump was often a snake in the grass, still is. My friend Chris was a snake in the grass when, one summer, he invited my dad to ride a train with him and wasn’t able to follow through.
Someone can also be a sucker’s kitten if they sneakily do him a favor or some sort of kindness. A mechanic friend, Big Dirty, was a snake in the grass when he wouldn’t accept any money from my father for fixing his car.
I started writing these articles for the Pittsburgh Current a year ago. My dad calls me every Sunday night. Weeks when they come out he tells me all the things he did or didn’t like about them. He also gives me a list of my grammatical errors. Weeks the articles don’t come out he first tells me there was no article then asks where the heck it’s been hiding. Hopefully after reading this he doesn’t tell me it was written by a man with a paper asshole.