You know what

I’m in Banana Republic, quite overwhelmed by the towering wall of jeans in front of me. I’m looking for a new identity, but it’s not here. I like to think of myself as a twenty-one year old, albeit in a sixty-one year old body. Yes, I’m the first to admit I’ve always looked older than I am or, more importantly, feel, but I don’t mind the physical decay so long as I know my Smoking Popes from my Smashing Pumpkins. But I simply don’t get the current fashion for wearing jeans well below the boxer line. It worries me to see how t-shirts are shrinking and pants slipping, and this very worry betrays my true middle-aged self.

There’s no way I’m going to wear ‘Boot Cut’ jeans. I don’t want to be hitching them up every twenty yards or so. And I want to keep my boxers to myself. A Banana Republican approaches me, “You know what, can I…”


My interruption breaks the Banana Republican’s flow. He looks at me quizzically, “I’m sorry Sir, what did you say?”

“I said, ‘What?’”

“What, Sir?”

“What do I know?”

“What do you know, Sir?” The Banana Republican frowns as he tries to regain control of a dialogue seemingly spinning hopelessly out of control, “I’m not sure I’m with you”. Actually I’m not with him. Banana Republic is far too young, far too Republican and far too Bananary for me, which is why I find myself playing my new game with him. Where the English say “Uhm”, Americans, particularly Chicagoans, say, “You know what”. It’s an unconscious piece of punctuation that allows them to continue talking without taking breath.

And, Boy, can they talk in the Mid-West. It was during an interview at a school for Jay that I first really noticed it. The Admissions lady introduced the interview by explaining that this was our opportunity to ask some questions about the school. Fifty minutes later, and without so much as even half an opening into the conversation, I found myself having an out of body experience that involved getting up from my chair and banging my head relentlessly against the wall. When, on the hour she noticed her next appointment waiting outside and released us, without having let us get a question in edgeways, I almost hugged her with the relief of finding that we weren’t, as I had begun to fear, stuck in a Guantanamo situation with the slow drip of talk torture.

Chicago is the home of Oprah Winfrey, the Queen of Chat, and the birthplace of Jerry Springer, so I guess it should come as no surprise that they know how to talk.

‘What?’, however, is a remarkably effective conversation stopper. It has much the same effect on whoever has unknowingly said “You know what?” as inadvertently knocking a gear stick into reverse, when cruising at 70mph on the highway, might have on a car engine.

I continue my search for the new urban look in Gap. (Only the most cutting-edge places for me.) The gaping slit on the knee of my ageing jeans is getting bigger by the day. Although in keeping with the distressed look I aspire to, I need better protection from the sub-Artic wind chill that whips off Lake Michigan right through the opening on the knee and straight up the thigh into my boxers. The new line of jeans in Gap suggest that maybe I’m not the fashion laggard I had supposed, for the denim on display looks as if it’s been dragged a couple of times around a trailer park on the back of pick-up truck before being savaged by a pack of ravenous hounds. The design feature of 2006 is rips and tears. In fact, the jeans in Gap are indistinguishable from the pair I want to replace.

You know what, I need a coffee.

“Exactly how many coffees do you drink a day?”

I get used to this question, but coming, as it does, from an obviously concerned Starbucks employee makes me realise I might have a problem.

My name’s Simon and I’m a coffeeholic.

Chicago has seventy-two Starbucks, more per capita than any other large US city. It also happens to have relatively more bars, golf courses and, I’m guessing, music venues. I can’t help wondering if, perhaps, divine intervention has played its part in our latest relocation.

There’s even a drive-thru Starbucks here. A drive-thru Starbucks; it makes sense. The big idea of Starbucks is ‘the third place’, a middle ground between home and the office. Over here the third (if not the first) place is the car. A drive-thru Starbucks, then, is a perfect translation of the European Coffee House concept into American.

One American lady recently took the notion of ‘home being where the carburator is’ a little too literally. Once on the highway she set the cruise control of her brand new thirty-two foot motor home at 60mph, and then went to the back of the Winnebago to make herself a sandwich. This being America, she not only sued the manufacturer for not warning her in the manual that it would be inadvisable to leave the wheel of a two-ton vehicle travelling at 60mph, but she won her case and was awarded just short of two million dollars. Had she not been quite so litigious she might, as she emerged from the wreckage that was once her motorised home, slice of unbuttered Homepride in hand, have said, “My bad”.

When I first heard someone say “My bad”, after a stray pass in soccer practice, I waited in vain for “…. leg”, or even “…. pass”, before it dawned on me that was it. ‘My bad’ is one of those linguistic distortions that diminish our sense of losing the colonies. Did Dick Cheney, I wonder, raise his hand in apology and say “My bad” when he realised the animal he had just peppered with thirty-two rounds of gunshot was in fact a protected species? It provides an interesting point of comparison that while British Deputy Prime Ministers punch people, American Vice-Presidents simply shoot them.

It’s not just gun-toting Government officials you have to watch out for. Apparently ordinary citizens can be equally trigger-happy. In a recent case a hunter bagged a mother of two, shooting her stone dead as she was out for an afternoon amble on the other side of the undergrowth. He was absolved of any blame because she had been wearing white mittens. The court report failed to explain whether white mittens are themselves considered sufficiently provocative to justify one’s immediate and summary execution or whether they simply increase one’s chances of being mistaken for a deer, a female deer.

You know what, I’m going to stop here.

Obituary. Splodge Gravatt. b. South London 2001 or thereabouts. d. Chicago February 24th 2006. Sex uncertain. Splodge was a giant among Guinea Pigs, a world traveller, a self-made rodent who, through sheer endeavour, escaped a deprived and motherless childhood to live a life of luxury in a six-bed roomed downtown Chicago townhouse. While Guinea Pigs tend to travel no more than four and half feet in their lifetime from one end of the cage to the other, Splodge traversed the globe. Splodge leaves behind an official veterinary certificate (“Splodge Gravatt cleared fit for export”), a self-scribed e-mail from America (it’s a rare Guinea Pig that writes an e-mail), and memories from an epic road trip. Splodge will be sadly missed.


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