Benny Jay: Supercilious Son of a Bitch

December 30th, 2010

Going through the rubble of junk in my office, as part of that massive cleanup I’ve been writing about, I find this piece of paper from 1973.

It’s from Youth and Contemporary Fiction, my senior-year high school English class.

We’d been reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. And the teacher had put together a vocabulary list of words taken from the book along side the page on which they could be found.

For instance, Fitzgerald uses the word levity on page one in the following sentence: “Most of the confidences were unsought — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least, the terms in which express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions.”

Robert Redford was in The Great Gatsby….

Can we take a moment to appreciate that sentence. Great sentence! Great writer!  Got  to get him to write for The Third City.  Oh, wait, he drank himself to death over sixty years ago. Damn!

But that’s okay — we already have a drunk on staff. Take a bow, Milo.

Here are the other words on the list: abortive, proximity, reciprocal, languidly, peremptory, supercilious, ambiguously, strident, innuendo, vacuous, corpulent, poignant, sporadic, incredulity, distraught, nebulous, Platonic, meretricious, ineffable, debauchee, oblivion, euphemisms, incarnation, affront, contingency, inexplicable, libertine, presumptuous, despicable, indiscernible, grail.

I can’t remember what grade I got in that class. Probably a B. I got a lot of Bs in those days. Close but no cigar. Story of my life. One of these days though….

Looking down the list, I realize I don’t use or hear other people using these words every day. But this one instance….

Mike Royko wrote for The Chicago Daily News….

Winter 1978. I was working as a copy boy for the Chicago Daily News, one of the great newspapers of its time.

I was having the time of my life. Carousing all night and crawling into work the next morning.

If they were giving out grades for partying, I’d have gotten an A — no doubt about it.

It wasn’t a particularly hard job. We were the office clerks who got sent here and there to fetch this or that.

There was this one reporter — Donald Zochert — a big and commanding newsroom presence and a great, great writer. Wrote books in his spare time.

The news editor was a grumpy guy name Stigley, or something like that. Real caustic asshole — always yelling at copy boys.

One time Zochert said to me: Don’t worry about Stigley. He’s a supercilious son of a bitch.

I had a vague notion of the word — from the Gatsby vocabulary list, no doubt. But to make sure, I went to the news room dictionary where I learned that supercilious means arrogantly superior.

Perfect word. Summed up Stigley to a T. I’m telling you, that Zochert really knew his shit….

The Daily News went out of business in March of 1978. Most people got canned — me, Zochert and Stigley included. In other words the guys who got the As and the guys who got the Bs.  Suddenly, none of that bullshit matter anymore, as if it ever did.

Here’s to you Don Zochert, wherever you may be. And Stigley — kiss my ass. Not that I hold a grudge.

I’m going to put that vocabulary list in an plastic envelope and stash it in my desk where I can look at it from time to time whenever I want to remember the good old days of my youth….

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