The Moment of Truth — June 8, 2002

When I Blew A Younger Man’s Nose

On construction sites, where I spend most of my time during the day, one is forced to listen to a lot of so-called classic rock, which for some reason includes Billy Joel’s song, “Piano Man.” And the other day I had to hear that song for the drillion and thirty-third time.

And the old man sitting next to him said it was sad and sweet and he knew it complete when he wore a younger man’s clothes. And I thought, who is this younger man whose clothes he was wearing when he knew it complete? Of course, the younger man was himself. When he was a younger man he wore that younger man’s clothes. His underwear, his shoes, his shirts. He even brushed his teeth with a younger man’s toothbrush.

And so I thought, well, he could just as well have said he knew it complete when he blew a younger man’s nose. And that would have been one step apart between the two elements in the synecdochical schema, because of the infrequency with and the special circumstances under which noses are blown, relative to the same vis-à-vis wearing clothes. And I think that added ambiguity would add a little spice.

You would have to trust your audience to risk a trope like that. You’d have to have faith that when the old man said he knew it complete when he blew a younger man’s nose, your listeners weren’t going to stumble over that. Or that at least, having stumbled over it, they would nevertheless “take it in stride,” as it were.

You’d have to picture a listener who would hear that and maybe go, “Wait, what was that? When he blew a younger man’s nose? What the – oh, I see – how clever; isn’t that at once ridiculous and sublime!” And of course the listener would have plenty of time to negotiate that trope during the piano fill that immediately follows the line in question. Or at least you’d have to trust your listener enough to imagine that that’s what would happen.

With enough faith you could get way out there. When I stubbed a younger man’s toes. That’s actually better than blowing his nose. Or when I picked a younger man’s rose. Or in Detroit, when I drank a younger man’s Stroh’s. Even when I pimped a younger man’s hoes. These four alternatives each indicate wistfulness on the part of the old man, not merely for the lost knowledge of the song complete, but for a particular quality of youth. In the first case, toe stubbing: innocence and painful discovery. In the second, rose picking: romance. With the Stroh’s, well, a younger drunk’s beer certainly tastes better than that of a bitter old barfly. And pimping the hoes, well, he’s old, he can no longer pimp like he used to. And he associates these attributes of youth – innocence, romance, appreciation of flavor, and ability to deal the hoes – with the long lost ability to remember the song complete.

I mean, anyone of any age can wear clothes. It’s a rather bland image, a younger man’s clothes. Big deal. Picking a rose may be cliché, but it is quite visual and specific. What are younger man’s clothes, anyway? Plenty of young men wear old man’s clothes. It’s just vague and, in my opinion, lazy poetry. Or, if not lazy, then faithless, because the poet had no faith that the listener could make the necessary interpretive leap during the piano fill.

Now let’s give the man his props. He does call Joe a real estate novelist, rendering an entire sickening portrait in a vignette of three words. And he does turn quite a phrase when he says, “They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.” I also like that they put bread in his jar. I know he didn’t coin that term, bread, but I just like it there. It makes me think of how money equals bread. And how poetic a species we are, we who agreed for a while to call money “bread.”

But the waitress practicing politics does absolutely nothing for me. The only woman in the song, and she’s made even more invisible by what he says about her than if he hadn’t mentioned her at all. Oh wait, there’s the wife that the real estate novelist never had time for. The waitress practicing politics could have been, “And Loraine does some bar napkin calculus.” I admit to appreciating the terminal slant consonance with “loneliness,” so I’m seeking to preserve that. It could have gone, “And Bernice is a barstool oncologist.” Or “And Suzanne sips the evening’s paralysis.”

And then there’s John at the bar. The smile ran away from his face, did it? I think the smile FELL away. It didn’t run, it didn’t walk, it didn’t fly. Maybe it took a cab, but it sure as hell didn’t run. I think it fell. Maybe it passed away. Maybe it blew away when the old guy blew the younger man’s nose.

Meanwhile, back at the job site I’m the only one listening, anyway. And now ZZ Top is talking about a sharp-dressed man or cheap sunglasses or something. But if I put on the station that’s playing Ramones all day in honor of Dee Dee’s overdose I’ll never hear the end of it. And Gordo will probably turn on the all-Mexican-polka station, and Jorge and all of Juan’s painters will stand with him. But that’s my burden, not yours, and not Billy Joel’s; I’m a simple working man, plying my humble trade. Far be it from me to tell the giants of the music industry how to go about their business.