I met an old drifter one night in an alley in Greeley, Colorado. I was a kid and it was the notorious ‘Sixties, had hitchhiked out from Minneapolis, caught a ride with an Indian Sikh and a local gal who had just undergone a bypass and was living full. I’d stepped out of the bar to light up with said couple and the old guy had just appeared from the shadows. He was holding a ragged little notebook up trying to catch some light from the far streetlamp, trying to read it and then seeing us and right away getting too close. His eyes were looking past us, they were little wet domes, but they riveted me to the bar’s brick wall. I was young, as I said, and this guy might’ve been eighty years old.
–You know what town I’m in?
We knew what one we were in. No one cared to answer.
–Godamned Greeley! Is it Greeley?
I finally nodded my head.
Headed West, gotta get out of here. You kids are up pretty late!
His words were slurred. He was so close to me I could smell his breath. Port wine, maybe. It was midnight. I just nodded again.
–You kids know what I hate most ?
The three of us looked to each other for help. We’d just been to the Rialto to watch Monty Python’s How to Irritate People.
–I hate kids hanging out in alleys after Midnight!
I nodded again. Maybe he was right to feel that way, I didn’t know. Maybe he’d lost somebody that way. In any case, I got set to run. Then his eyes turned watery and he backed away.
–Life a funny thing!
–Life a VERY FUNNY THING!
He shouted it like he’d discovered the thought out of nowhere. Then he vanished back into the shadows.
Life a funny thing! It’s the same line I’d heard on Wide World of Sports: Sonny Liston, then the worlds most menacing boxer, a monstrous power with 20 inch arms and a 35 bpm heartbeat said it right after a skinny kid named Cassius Clay had knocked him out. I was into boxing then but felt worlds above its guttural dialogue. I just stood silently with my friends for awhile after the the old man disappeared. He must’ve been parroting the line, I thought. He was black, maybe he had a connection. People build their entire lives around John and Yoko. Or maybe he was a drunk and unschooled and just couldn’t find the right words.
But the real meaning of the line started surfacing over time. A score of years later, I wrote a stage play for a lab theater and had the line sprayed as graffiti across the set’s seawall–the show was a postmodern murder mystery and I was assaulting . . . the assault of Derrida? Those were heady days and I felt like I was just discovering speech!
That now famous boxing line, ‘life a funny thing’, first said out of disbelief following a painful loss, might be a perfect summing up of our final condition. Simple as it sounds, discovering the line’s various meanings is complicated beyond words. Just for starters, try stating what’s meant by ‘Funny’ — the line is usually repeated like a one-liner, but it was uttered out of grief, and its humor rests in its irony: we have the whole world in our hands and then . . . poof! We lose that Thing, whatever it is. Is it Life? According to the sentence, it’s a Funny Thing! And of course a Thing can be any thing. It encompasses literally every thing that’s the least bit notable in Life, so the word Thing in its largest sense even encompasses life! Get past that and you’re still left not knowing what in the world Life’s being so damned funny about.Not knowing. Wondering. Speculating. It could range from Weird as Hell to Hilarious, as in, ‘it’s funny how life is weird but hilarious’. And if Life equals Everything . . . .
Back then there wasn’t a thought of laying it out that way. But as fate has it, we were soon to get the answer up on the silver screen — Monty Python’s next movie was The Meaning of Life. You can still find it for sale at Walmart. So good luck, everyone. Keep it funny, and anyway you don’t have a choice, it’s complicated. Truly.