Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can beat octogenarian bon-vivant and York College of City University of New York professor-emeritus Alan Cooper at his own game.
Millie was intrigued with the jovial grammarian as we sat at dinner recently, shortly after exchanging erudite comments on a bobbing ship’s tender in choppy South-Pacific waters.
Impressed with Cooper’s pedigree, which includes a BS from City College of New York, as well as an MA and PhD from Columbia, Millie recalled her gruesome nine months of practice teaching her first year after college.
“I was presenting ‘A man’s reach must exceed his grasp / Or what’s a heaven for?’ to twelfth graders who weren’t going to college,” she lamented. “I was so bad that I didn’t even pay the ten dollars to get certified.”
The genial scholar thought for a moment and replied, wistfully, “Yes. Robert Browning’s Andrea del Sarto. I taught that as well. But,” — he thought for a moment before delving into his cache of Victorian English literature and timeless anecdotes — “I started with the old ‘sticks and stones may – – -, but words – – -‘ .”
He’d ask his students to fill in the blanks, then swing with lightning speed to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Cask of Amontillado.
“You see, Fortunato harmed Montresor; but it wasn’t until he insulted him that Montresor took revenge.”
Then came the zinger, what makes Alan Cooper, well, Alan Cooper: a reference, perhaps, to Fortunato’s final gasps as Montresor walls him up in the deep, dank catacomb.
“I always tell them, ‘A man’s speech must exceed his gasp, or what’s a metaphor?”
This through-to-the bone New Yorker, who grew up in a Manhattan apartment building backing up to Chris Christie’s pesky George Washington Bridge, is never at a loss for words play.
When Millie referenced the 2006 movie Last Holiday, Cooper’s bushy eyebrows arched as he queried, “With Alec Guinness?”
No, we replied, Queen Latifah, later learning courtesy of Google that her film was indeed a remake, homage to Alec Guinness’s 1950 dark comedy of the same name.
Guinness played George Bird. The Queen was Georgia Byrd. We hadn’t been aware of that.
“I don’t want to be accused of being highbrow,” the purveyor of erudition couched in anecdotal humor protested.
Is middlebrow a word?
As a gift, Cooper and his trim, energetic, never-take-an-elevator-when-you-can-walk-up-eight-flights-of-stairs wife, Vera, presented us with a copy of the aurally-cajoling professor’s lighthearted poem on Machu Picchu, which brought back memories of when Jimmy Durante, performing at the Roosevelt Hotel’s Blue Room in the late 1950s, offered my brother Don, wearing dressy little-boy shorts, a shiny silver dime if he’d kick up his legs from his front row seat.
Who could have known that almost half-a-century later, an East Coast scholar would discover the mysteries of the Incas in the trademark intonations of “The Schnoz,” as Durante was known?
“Yes the echo of the Incas
In that nasal chanty rings
That we hear as ‘ink-a dink-a’ s
When the great Durante sings.
Just that “ink-a dink-a dink
A-dink-a dink-a dink-a doo
Holds that secret law of Incas
That he’s handed down to you.” **
Did I forget to mention that Cooper, an acknowledged authority on the work of novelist Philip Roth, bemoans the fact that so many readers miss “the fun in Portnoy’s Complaint”?
I almost matched Cooper toward the end of dinner, when I casually asked if he knew that the Biblical character Job was the first eye doctor.
“Eye doctor?” my verbal adversary mused, then hesitated a second, and continued, “It must have something to do with ‘optical.’ ”
I couldn’t wait for him to figure it out. He was getting too close.
“A man I know on Bayou Lafourche once told me that Job suffered because God placed so many opticals in his path,” I confessed.
The professor rolled his eyes, and a smile briefly crossed his face as he took a final bite of his just desserts.
** Excerpt from Also Sprach Machu Picchu, Alan Cooper, 2009