Incivility trumps the empty dance of manners


Swear jar I knew a man once who never spoke with the slightest courtesy or civility.

Whatever you said, be it hello, how are you, is that your real nose, or were you really once arrested for stealing a camel from a circus, the answers would always be forms of piss off, leave me alone, don't ask stupid questions, are you always such an idiot, or why did your people ever leave the sad wet rock on which they were born.

You think I am exaggerating but I swear I am not.

Yet he was the nicest guy imaginable. Many other people were as startled as I by the paradoxicity of the man. He was a pillar of his community, a veteran and esteemed employee of the brave nonprofit for which he had worked for 30 years, sober as a judge, married, graced with children, a taxpayer, even once a candidate for local government in his town, although he garnered only 90 votes, losing to a woman who taught math.

(Interestingly she died two weeks after taking office, and the town held a special election to fill her seat, and he lost that election also, this time to a man who taught spelling.)

I spent five years working with this man, and they were remarkable years, with many misadventures.

One time we were in a meeting when a very important person proposed a very stupid idea. I was sitting behind my uncivil friend, with two other people, and we looked at each other with fear and trembling, for we knew beyond doubt that he would pop a gasket, melt the polar cap, and heap mountainous abuse on his interlocutor.

Then we would all be summarily fired, and forced back to the toy factories from which we had come, weary of putting the ears on Mr Potato Head all day long.

Indeed he did explode, albeit in memorably calm and incisive fashion. He began obliquely by telling the story about how he had indeed stolen a camel, then observed that what the camel left behind in steaming redolent mounds could and should be compared to some ideas from some people, not to name names or anything.

I still savor the shimmering silence in that room when he finished speaking. A great silence is a remarkable sound.

There were many moments like that, most of them funny, although some were not so funny, such as the time a doctor told my uncivil friend that his beloved daughter had a tumor the size of a sparrow in her belly, and my friend excoriated the doctor with such foul and vituperative language that his wife hauled him away by the arm weeping with shame and fear.

Later I found him sprawled and sobbing on the floor of a chapel, and I began to realise then that his fury and testiness were masks of some sort, disguises, skins without which perhaps he could not live, for reasons beyond my ken, and perhaps his — who among us can safely say he knows anything of who he is or how he came to be?

As another friend observed, maybe our uncivil friend's snarling mask was a prison that had grown to fit his face. Perhaps he had deliberately tried uncivility when young, perhaps from rage at or exhaustion from the mincing empty dance of manners, perhaps as a way to be different, and had been caught by it, caught in it. Perhaps he even hammered at the bars and wished to be released, for all we knew. But we did not know.

There are lots more stories, like the torrent of oaths with which he flayed a priest who had lied and lied and lied about raping children, or the startling string of oaths he would emit when he smelled the least pomposity or fatuousness or unpreparedness, or the parade of oaths he used whenever he got fed up with the general cultural absorption in sport, or the marching bands of oaths he reserved for brilliant murderous liars like Stalin, or the imaginative oaths he issued when he caught the slightest scent of condescension.

But I'd be weeks telling all those stories, and I should cut to the chase for once, and tell you that eventually he died, and while this grieved me then and saddens me still — because he really was, beneath his brusque and thorny mask, a witty and gentle soul — I savor a story of his passing, told to me by his second son.

A priest had come, at the end, to anoint the dying man and shrive his sins, and my uncivil friend was either consistent to the end, or he ran one last goof on his old friend the priest, for, as the son tells it, the priest slipped and made one incautious remark about death not being an end but a beginning, and my uncivil friend whispered, with one of the very last breaths of his life, 'Piss off, Paul', which, as the son told me, made his children and his wife and the priest roar with laughter, and then weep bitter tears.

Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. He is the author of nine books of essays and poems, most recently Thirsty for the Joy: Australian & American Voices.

Topic tags: brian doyle, notes on incivility, memoir, portland magazine



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Existing comments

Great article. Loved it.
Shane Allan | 25 June 2008

I would have liked to get to know your friend!
Kerry Bergin | 25 June 2008

Great story, great telling. I suspect that lots of behaviours that are masks become prisons that fit our lives. What is the University of Portland Magazine?
Joe McGirr | 26 June 2008

Hi John - glad you enjoyed Brian's story. You can check out the Portland Magazine website here. Cheers.
Tim Kroenert | 26 June 2008

Throughout the article your friend reminded me so much of a friend of mine who died a couple of years ago - but especially when I read his "parting words".

I had gone to visit him with Communion. He was obviously in some pain but I chatted on, looking for the right moment to begin praying - obviously waited too long, because he looked me in the eye and said, in his inimitable style, "Give me Jesus and piss off!"
Gabrielle Brian | 30 June 2008


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