DSM is not the first to note this linguistic quirk…
Occasionally, as someone with too much time on his hands, I go on eccentric chases down obscure rabbit holes. I’ve just been on one such adventure. It started with a word and a billionaire’s use of the word, Mark Cuban at a political rally for Hillary Clinton. The word? “Jagoff.” Cuban was talking about Donald Trump. “You know what we call a person like that in Pittsburgh? A jagoff. Is there any bigger jagoff in the world than Donald Trump?”
And suddenly I was back in Pittsburgh, back in my childhood, when it was jagoff this and jagoff that, a common word with us and one that I rarely heard anywhere else but in Pittsburgh—jagoff, an obnoxious, base person, a contemptible person. What was the origin of the word, I wondered?
I had come in my dotage to rely on Google. There in Wikipedia was jagoff: “… an American English derogatory slang term…meaning a person who is stupid or inept. It is most prominent in the Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania areas… an archetypical Pittsburgh word, conjuring warm and nostalgic feelings among Pittsburgh expatriates… the term has its roots in the northern British Isles, an area that supplied many immigrants to Pittsburgh. It is derived from the verb ‘to jag,’ which means ‘to prick or poke.’ “Read More
The music was loud, insistent, driving. It was a Saturday night, mid-June, steaming hot, the club, the Jazz Gallery on Manhattan’s lower east side, packed. I had the largest group, four tables pushed together in the center of the place, a dozen or so people, musicians, writers, artists, all drinking, laughing, arguing. I was balancing a half dozen drinks at a time. Mingus was there, downing a mountain of chicken and ribs, discussing heatedly with Dave Garroway, an icon of early morning television, the first host of NBC’s “Today” show and a passionate lover of jazz, the pros and cons of Thelonious Monk.
Monk’s music, improvisational, harshly dissonant, took some getting used to. Garroway, a drummer of sorts, was in the club two or three times a week and he was railing against Monk and Mingus would have none of it: he considered Monk a genius. We waiters used to battle not to wait on Garroway who was pathologically cheap: a two dollar tip on a hundred dollar check was big money for him. Years later he put a bullet in his head and I remember thinking that his suicide and extraordinary frugality were somehow related.
The year was 1960 and I was a waiter in a club, The Jazz Gallery, on New York’s Lower East Side. The club teemed with activity, the best jazz players of the time, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, and a ton of others; great abstract painters, Franz Klein, Willem de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Larry Rivers; writers, Norman Mailer, Frank O’Hara, Terry Southern.
Edouard de Laurot with his inamorata Zoë (Tamerlis) Lund
I first became acquainted with Eduoard de Laurot through his writings in Film Culture Magazine. He had founded the magazine with Jonas Mekas in the early fifties. His articles were astonishing, often abstruse, impossible to fully-comprehend, but stunning in their brilliance, power, and insightfulness. Reading de Laurot for the first time, I thought, this is the most astounding writing on film I have ever encountered. This is genius. De Laurot would come to a seemingly ordinary work, a commonplace film with a straight-forward narrative, and cut and slice his way into the heart of the thing, the profound mystery of a work, laying bare the complex, true soul of the piece.
After more than thirty years teaching writing and a career of over fifty years as a professional writer, I’ve learned a few things. Students come to you eager to discover how they can develop their craft. They want to learn the tricks of the trade, how to get started, how to establish a schedule, how to proceed. They want all the technical details of how to write dialogue, character, plot. They also want to know about practical matters: how many hours do you write a day, where do you write, do you use a typewriter, computer, pen and paper? Where do you get your material? All salient matters, important matters to do with the craft of writing.
And yet– underneath it all is a question that rarely gets asked, but one that all of these writers, neophytes and veterans, are compulsively pondering: how can I earn a living? How can I build a career? How can I become successful? Read More
My third novel, Kabbalah, was inspired by events in my life and my relationship to Aba Leiter, a close childhood friend. An elderly candy-store-owner in our neighborhood, Mr. Cua, was senselessly murdered by a kid from the neighborhood, and Aba, who had become a rabbi, was the killer’s chaplain in prison. I was haunted by this murder and eventually decided to write about it.
I hadn’t seen Aba for some time. I found out he was living in Manitowoc, Wisconsin where he was rabbi to a local congregation. I visited with him and his family and he told me about Mr. Cua’s killer and when I said I would like to have some sort of theological underpinning for the novel, he told me about Kabbalah, a mystical system of Jewish thought that attempts to define the nature of the universe and man’s place in it. One of the powerful ideas in Kabbalah is the notion that if one can save a single human it is as though you are saving the universe. I felt I could use that in my novel as my rabbi sets out to save his childhood friend, the man who has killed the candy-store-owner.
The founders of La Eme, including Rodolfo “Cheyenne” Cadena (front right).
Things became tense early on between me and Joker Mendoza, one of Cadena’s assassins. He was aggressive, walked with a chip on his shoulder, always tried to stress how important he was. Tiny Contreras, who was the leader of the assassination, had contempt for him, but always stressed to me how dangerous he was.
His prison blues were impeccable, razor sharp crease in the trousers, mirror shine on his shoes. When we first met he commented on my baggy trousers. “Can’t you afford nothing more stylish?” “I may not be stylish, “ I said, “but I won’t be spending the rest of my life in prison.” He shook his head in disdain.
I have been amazingly fortunate. Two writers from my prison classes have produced exceptional works. Ken Hartman, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, worked on a memoir in my class at Tehachapi Prison. It was eventually published as Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars.It won the Eric Hoffer award for a memoir and received spectacular reviews. It’s a powerful work, profound, frightening, moving. And now another student of mine, John Nelson, has come up with an equally stunning work, also a prison memoir: Where Excuses Go To Die.
“Where Excuses Go To Die” is funny, touching, wise. Nelson gives you the desperate, grinding prison reality in fire-cracker language that has you shaking your head in admiration. This guy has an eye and an ear and an instinct for what really goes on behind the walls, what criminals are truly like, the relationships between staff and convict, how the whole circus cartwheels along. Want to know how a bright, middle-class kid ends up a convict, serving seven years for bank robbery? Want to know, feel, taste the innards of California prisons in hilarious, disturbing detail, how one survives or doesn’t in fantastical situations absurd, brutal, terrifying? I spent thirteen years teaching in maximum-security prisons. My one-man show, Murderers Are My Life, is a revelation of that world—I thought I had seen it all– but John Nelson pulled the curtains aside and showed me the core of incarceration, stuff that I never could have imagined.