I was born an imitator. In the age of Ronald Reagan, I went around the house, starting nasal sentences in a Reaganish “Well.” I wasn’t even ten; I had no idea what Iran-Contra meant or that he fired thousands of air-traffic controllers or that he kept silent for years about AIDS.
My heroes were Major Leaguers. My family wasn’t Catholic, and I couldn’t have told you the first thing about Catholicism, but for a couple of weeks one summer, before at-bats at baseball games, I crossed myself just like hitters I’d seen on TV.
I imitated them by spitting, too. They spit prodigiously, just as they toed the dirt in the batter’s box, punched their gloved hands, held up two fingers to signal two outs. So I spit. Before games, I gnawed on grape-flavored Big League Chew, and the sweetened saliva had to go. I lived in Arkansas: the temperature was usually over 90, the humidity forcing its intimacy upon us. During games, spitting was the only respite. In the hard-baked dust, the spit made little dark-brown embryonic sacs.
Besides, baseball is boring: between plays, spitting digested a few seconds.
The fact is: I liked spitting. I still do. On the sidewalk, I’ll swivel to see if I’m alone or seen. If alone, I spit into the grass.
In my favorite movie from childhood, The Naked Gun, a spitting gag runs 20 seconds: players on the field, players in the dugout, coaches, and even in the stands a row of knitting players’ wives—they all spit brown ropes.
My greatest childhood desire, a desire that has refused to let me grow out of it, is to make people laugh. That’s the mark that, in person, I want to make.
As much as I liked spitting, I could only stomach dipping for one week when I was twelve. My friends did, so I did. Donnie* laughed at my cloddish thumbs barely able to wedge a twiggy, minty pinch between my lip and teeth; he laughed at my nausea.
But my brother was angry. He’d told me not to smoke or dip. Between his judgment and my nausea, I kept to regular spitting with only the assistance of candy and gum, whenever I could. Behind our apartment complex, I’d hock up phlegm and see how far I could launch it, measuring the distance by the creosoted railroad ties that surrounded two sides of our building. On hot days, Ted and Oscar and I would stand in the shade behind their building and spit over the air-conditioner: with the fan blurred, blowing hot air up, keeping apartments cool, that was our Russian Roulette.
Spitting became a habit—once, walking down the pale blue carpet of our apartment hallway, I spat on the floor. I stopped, realizing what I’d done, then walked on.
Everyone knows the spit take: the moment a character takes a sip, only to be surprised by some information. It’s an essential gesture because comedy relies on the sense of surprise. No joke should seem planned or expected; it should seem exquisitely improvised, a stroke of genius.
It isn’t genteel to point out, but spit can be beautiful. It’s an ordinary beauty—the parabola, the clearly practiced skill. Even a gob, viewed from the right wrong angle, becomes a gem. Get close enough, and you’ll see the oft-postered view of the Milky Way you’ll find in science classrooms around the country, or one of the Hubble Telescope’s images of a far-off nebula. Or zoom in via microscope and discover that saliva, as anything else, has its own microbiome of roughly 600 bacteria, mostly healthy or harmless. In the 17th century, Dutch scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek—his last name an onomatopoeia for hocking up phlegm—took a film from his teeth and put it under the microscope. He saw “many very little living animalcules, very prettily a-moving.” We’re lucky to have the eyes to see such life.
Nobody else in my family spit. In that regard, I’m not the spitting image of my dad. We
share some characteristics—height, a tendency to stick to the same haircut, an insistence on telling jokes for the sake of telling them.
The phrase spitting image irritates literalists and originalists. It is elision and illusion: spit and image, when spoken, became spitting image. Now, the cliché makes no sense. Yale linguistics professor Laurence R. Horn explores the etymology in his article “Spitten Image: Ethmythology and Fluid Dynamics.” (As anyone interested in spit must be, Horn likes his puns: great expectorations, the salivation army, when we dip into the archives.) In early 17th Century Britain, spit carries the meaning “the very likeness”: “Now look I as like the Dutchman as I were spit out of his mouth.” In the 19th century, the phrase “spit and image” emerges as a cliché, primarily describing sons and their fathers.
I don’t remember seeing my father spit. He was my baseball coach, so he spent hours and hours in that brutal heat. He squatted to catch my wayward pitching, he drove ground balls and fly balls to the team’s fumbling defense. But, as I remember, he never spit.
Both my parents smoked in my childhood. My dad quit when I was twelve; for a while, he put on weight and a temper.
In high school, I tried smoking for a couple of weeks. The first inhalation of every cigarette induced intense nausea and seemed like another sign that I wouldn’t ever be cool, but I was also relieved to know I couldn’t smoke. I’d been so turned off by the grime of my parents’ ashtrays, amber and porcelain, the way smoke clung to my clothes my mom had washed.
When I was five, I liked to say that my real father was a man named Blinky, so named because he invented the distant towers on which lights flashed. I had a clear image of him driving a red Cadillac with chrome tail lights that stuck up like cartoon cat ears. I think my insistence irritated my dad more than he would have liked to admit.
What does expectoration have to do with family resemblance? The image of the son as the spit of the father appears in French, German, Portuguese, Flemish, Croatian, and Greek. In Turkish, Norwegian, and Icelandic, the son emerges as snot from a father’s sneeze. Dirty-minded readers have probably sussed out spit’s other resemblance, and there’s no reason to be coy: spit resembles semen. And if you think that’s a stretch, take it from Laurence Horn’s academic article: “We might also take note of the wide range of creation myths and legends—from Hittite, Indic, Greek, Slavic, and West African sources to Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—in which God creates man in his image by spitting, sneezing, or masturbating.”
As a son, I take no pleasure in pointing out the link.
I’ve never had children and, barring a 25th-hour reversal, never will. Frankly, and I write this without self-pity, I’ve never wanted to pass on any spitting image of me.
I tend to think back on junior high as the years I was bullied. My best friend convinced other friends to rip a homemade necklace off me at lunch, then convinced even more people to lie to me that everyone was going to take a Spring Break trip to Daytona Beach, and I should come. (I even asked my parents if they would be able to afford it, then had to tell them I’d been pranked.) When we lived in those apartments bordered by creosote railroad ties, Jalen and Chase came over one summer weekday. We weren’t friends. Jalen was big for his age, fearsome on the baseball field, the only kid our age who regularly smacked the ball over the fence 200 feet away, who when he pitched, struck out nearly every hitter. His arms and neck were thick, and his white-blond fuzz gave him an aura. Everything he did, he did with a sneer. If Jalen was Looney Tunes’ Spike the Bulldog, the turtlenecked tough who intimidates just by the way he chews his toothpick, Chase was his Chester the Terrier, the hyperactive, yapping sycophant who feels larger by proximity.
My older brother John and I were home. I let Jalen tease me, make fun of our apartment. The coup de grace: Jalen took a big swig of orange soda, then spit it on the white wall behind our TV. I was scared of him; I did nothing. John made them leave.
I’d like to believe I could have stood up to Jalen and Chase. But I also like to believe that’s the image of me: the downtrodden, the bullied.
Laurence Horn’s article “Spitten Image” explores not just spit but invention: just as he explores etymology, he explores what he calls etymythology, the false story of word origins. Some linguists have claimed that “spit and image” is a Southern black bastardization of “spirit and image,” but that’s a feeble attempt to continue juvenilizing black people and to heighten the supposed nobility of white language. It’s simpler for whites to imagine slaves as peaceful imbeciles; it’s simpler to imagine that one is the spirit of one’s father rather than the spit.
We’re nobler in the memories we make.
In Singapore, the fine for spitting in public can be as high as $2000. In the 19th century United States, spittoons appeared like telephone poles, new public markers of progress: the mostly brass fixtures that ennobled the habit. The cleaning of spittoons would have fallen to janitors and custodians; most of those would have been black.
In junior high, my friends and I were prodigious spitters. Before school, in the courtyard, in the morning fog, we hocked our loogies, competed to see who could launch the longest arc. We were all webbed in puberty, but I was a year younger: I skipped the second grade, and even though I was tall for my age, I felt the gap of days and imagined an exponential split in experience. I may have thought of Chase as a midget, trying to swell himself into authority, but my spit did the same thing. Look at the mark I can make.
Our school was majority-minority, a magnet school, with white students bussed in from the county so the poor school could get funding. My white friends hated the black kids. One dim morning, they massed to head down a hall to fight a group. I didn’t go, mainly because I was too scared of getting hurt.
Spit is highly personal. When we kiss, we “swap spit.” We can order reports about our DNA by wiping the insides of our mouths with swabs and mailing them away. The results come with well-designed, colorful charts and graphs, but the reports are, as of now, highly suspect. The reports you might receive from these companies will offer contradictory information.
The “spit and image” of the father’s son cuts two ways: Because a child is born of the mother, the image of the father’s spit is the father’s reminder, “The child is mine.” It’s an ownership that elides the ooey, gooey details of parentage. But it also evokes those ooey, gooey details: my son is nothing more than this spit.
I imagine it’s difficult to read about the pleasures of spitting if anyone has ever spit in your face. I’ve never been spit on, and I’ve never spit in anyone’s face. But I’ve spit on someone before. Junior high. Seventh grade, or eighth. We were all wearing woolen ponchos, a trend out of nowhere. It was a misty fall morning, all of us arrayed in the courtyard before first period despite the wet. Better the damp outside than the dry, dank hallways, the classrooms in sight. The first warning bell rang—we had five minutes until the second warning bell, which gave us another three minutes to get to homeroom. Josh Johnson, a new kid we didn’t like because girls did, had on a poncho like the rest of us and walked blithely along, so someone—Donnie maybe—coughed up a hocker and quietly arched it into the air and onto Jazz’s back. He didn’t notice, so a few more guys lined up to sidle behind Josh and curve their spit onto him. So did I. Our hair was all wet from the morning mist; Josh never noticed. Or if he did, he never let us know.
At least, I tried to spit on him. The more I’ve handled this memory, turning it over without protective white gloves, I remember standing a few feet behind him, but I see my spit falling short, landing on his calf or the back of his shoe. In my memory, I didn’t want to hit the back of his head and give away the game.
But I don’t trust my memory of what’s accurate. What matters is that I tried, that I still feel guilty. I wonder if the memory of missing is my attempt at self-exoneration. If I missed, I could tell myself, maybe I didn’t really want to spit on him.
In the late 19th century, tuberculosis was spreading, especially in cities. Also popular in cities: spitting. On sidewalks, in public buildings, on public transit. Once scientists discovered that TB spread through sputum, many cities passed largely ineffective spitting bans.
After the 1918 flu epidemic, chewing gum replaced chewing tobacco. Cigarettes were seen as more sanitary than chaw. Spittoons began to disappear from polite society. At the beginning of World War II, many spittoons were melted down for scrap as part of the war effort.
Spitting on someone is an intimate kind of violence. It’s a particular threat, and one must respond or cower. In the face, it’s a special intimacy: you have to wipe it off, and if you don’t have a tissue handy, you have to use your sleeve. It’s an attack that stays in your clothes, whose after-feel stays on your skin.
In college, Mark Donovan accused me of having bullied his little brother, Levi, during junior high. I dismissed it because most of us dismissed what Matt said when we weren’t mocking it, but also because I couldn’t remember. I could remember Levi, with his stringy brown hair down to his shoulders, his slump, his thick glasses, how we sat paired at the black lacquered table in eighth-grade biology, how when I sat next to him I felt we were a pathetic pair, both of us bullied.
But I couldn’t shake what Mark said. For years, among the other dusty memories, what he said arises now and then. When it does, I think about it for a couple of days and feel a vague shame.
In 2001, Colson Whitehead wrote a negative review of Richard Ford’s story collection A Multitude of Sins. Two years later, Ford approached him in a restaurant and spit in his face. Whitehead joked about the incident, warning other reviewers to watch out for “inclement Ford.”
Ford is white; Whitehead is black.
Not long ago, I sent Levi Donovan a message and asked him if he remembered what I’d done to him. I wanted to apologize, and I wanted to apologize for the specific things I’d done. He wrote back, “I don’t remember anything about it. My memories of Jr. High are pretty much that time in 9th grade I skipped class and had to clean the classrooms for like a month so I could go on the space trip. [A class trip to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama.] One time at UCA [the University of Central Arkansas] I ran into that blond Jessica girl and she acted like she was too good to stand in the hall and reminisce a little.”
was relieved, not only that he didn’t remember, but that I wouldn’t have to remember, wouldn’t have to face what I’d said or done. I’d be happy to let my cruelties dry and disappear in an unremembered past.
Richard Ford is infamous for reacting badly to poor reviews. After Alice Hoffman wrote a critical review of Independence Day, the sequel to The Sportswriter and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Ford and his wife shot a copy of one of Hoffman’s books—as in shot shot—and mailed it to her. He later said, “But people make such a big deal out of it—shooting a book—it’s not like I shot her.”
I can’t remember what I said or did to Levi Donovan, but I can remember my attitude. I remember resenting that I sat next to him in biology, that I was paired with him, confirming my own lowly status. I would have sneered at him; I would have said snarky, mean things in response to his interests. (Dungeons & Dragons, if I remember rightly, but I may be filling in a detail because the story feels so filmy without it.)
Even if neither one of us remembers our interactions, I did enough for him to complain to his brother. And what I did reinforced whatever insecurities he may have had, and it reinforced my own casual meanness.
And if I’d run into him in college, I probably would have acted too good to stand in the hall and reminisce with him.
But it’s not like I shot him.
Ron Charles, a book reviewer for The Washington Post, said this about writing negative reviews: “I think people imagine that critics love to pan books, but I hate doing that. I can never sleep the night before I publish a negative review. Some reviews I’ve written still depress me years later.”
My parents aren’t what you would call emotionally expressive people. My dad expresses emotion expresses in laughter; my mom in eye-rolling. At the end of phone calls now, my mom and I say “I love you” to each other. The first time she said it, I was startled but said it back. Now it’s habit.
A couple of years ago, I tried ending a call to my dad by saying “I love you.” I heard his voice fumble on the other end. Then, “I love you, too.”
Neither one of us has said it since. But we know.
I didn’t want to write about Richard Ford beyond an anecdote—I’m creating a non-zero chance that he’ll curse, spit, or swing at me—but, as we say when we don’t particularly want to face or recall our processes, that’s the way it goes. I’ve never met the man or, to my knowledge, been in the same room as him. He’s less a person to me than a capital-W Writer—a figure as much a character to me as Frank Bascombe in Ford’s best-known novels.
So treat the following story not as a chronicle, nor even as gossip, but as invention. I heard it from another storyteller, one who was chasing laughs, warm in the aura of attention. Details for the sake of color: we were on the storyteller’s porch after midnight, shivering, drinking his expensive scotch, laughing at his anecdotes.
In 1996, The New Yorker published Ford’s essay “In the Face”; the essay was reprinted in The Best American Essays. According to the storyteller, Ford wrote about the pleasures of punching people, as the title suggested, in the face. The animating anecdote was this: Ford was at home trying to write one day, when his neighbor’s dog began barking and continued unabated. Ford then knocked on his neighbor’s door, asked the man to quiet his dog. The neighbor refused. They argued, and Ford punched him, breaking the man’s jaw.
How Ford writes about the incident: that he felt the impulse to punch another person when “my neighbor across the street, who, in the heat of an argument over nothing less than a barking dog, hit me in the face very hard, provoking me (or so I judged it) to hit him until he was down on the sidewalk and helpless.”
After “In the Face” was published to its acclaim, the storyteller was visiting Ford when the latter said, “Do you want to meet the guy I punched? We’re friends now.” They walked over and knocked; the neighbor answered. The punchline? Ford had left out crucial details: the man he’d punched, whose jaw he’d broken, was in his eighties.
Also in 1996: during a Major League Baseball game, Baltimore Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar strikes out on a third strike called by the umpire, John Hirschbeck. Alomar argues the call, then walks back to the dugout. Hirschbeck hears something from Alomar’s direction (according to Alomar, something he didn’t say), and he ejects Alomar from the game. They argue more. Hirschbeck then says a racial slur about Alomar’s mother, according to Alomar, and the latter does something now infamous and unrivaled in baseball history: he spits in Hirschbeck’s face.
Months later, Alomar would offer an apology neither man felt good about, but, years later, they reconciled and became close friends. Hirschbeck would go on to say of the incident, “If that’s the worst thing Robbie ever does in his life, he’ll lead a real good life. People make mistakes. You forgive, you forget and you move on.”
For years, players and managers have yelled, cursed, kicked dirt at umpires. But umpire Jim McKean, part of the umpiring crew the night Alomar spit on Hirschbeck, said, “We’ve had bumpings, we’ve had fights, but I’ve never really seen a ballplayer try and directly spit in an umpire’s face. Only animals spit in people’s faces.”
The earliest appearance of spit in English is 950, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in an Old English translation of The Lindisfarne Gospels. It’s the oldest translation of the Gospels into English. In the King James Version, Mark 10:34: “And they shall mock him, and shall scourge him, and shall spit upon him, and shall kill him: and the third day he shall rise again.”
Mock, then scourge, then spit, then kill: worse than scourging is spitting.
Richard Ford, “In the Face”: “I can hardly speak for the larger culture, but it’s been true all my life that when I’ve been faced with what seemed to me to be an absolutely unfair, undeserved, and insoluble dilemma, I have thought about hitting it or its human emissary in the face. I’ve felt this about authors of unfair book reviews.” Emphasis mine.
Roberto Alomar said of his actions, “That guy wasn’t me.”
One of America’s enduring ongoing myths is that large numbers of anti-war protesters spat in the faces of troops who returned from the Vietnam War. In his book Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, Jerry Lembcke characterizes that myth as a way of shifting focus from the strategic and ideational failures of the war to individuals. We—not just Americans, but people in general—tend to have a hard time focusing on the systemic over the individual. Story compels us, not systems. So we focus on the most violent interpersonal image we can, the war-torn, PTSD-riddled vet spat upon by the immoral protester.
If I can’t remember what I said or did to Levi Donovan, and he can’t remember or won’t tell me, can I say, “That guy wasn’t me”?
In classical Latin, expectorare, which gives us expectorate, to spit, was used figuratively and meant “to banish from the mind.”
For years, my dad told me many of the jokes that came to him. Because we lived in Arkansas, that meant some of the jokes were racist: they hinged on Mexicans stealing, black people being lazy. Here, I have to make a distinction that will seem unsatisfying to many, myself included. My granddaddy, my dad’s dad, used the n-word routinely enough that he had to be reminded not to use it around his grandkids. In that, he was not entirely successful. My uncle used the word as my granddaddy did, but my dad did not. I never heard him use it, even in the jokes he told.
But, once, I did. When I was eleven, our uncle was visiting, and I ran to tell him a joke with the n-word. As soon as I said it, my brother and dad yelled at me. I went back to my bedroom, chided.
Why did I do it? As I understood it, all I wanted was to tell a joke, to be liked.
In 1999, Richard Ford wrote an essay for the New York Times Magazine about traveling with Stanley Crouch, a modern mimicking of Huck and Jim’s trip down the mighty Mississip, the idea being to confront America’s racist past. Ford’s essay doesn’t come off well. Early on, Ford writes, explaining the intent, “Race—meaning, mostly, whites and Negroes trying to accommodate each other’s existence equitably—has been on my mind seemingly all my life, although most of what I currently think about race involves just the usual rotating miscellany of racial attitudes and reactions that are on most white people’s minds—whites, that is, who aren’t bigots.” Throughout the essay, he frames race largely in terms of individual interaction and demonstrates (as in the use of “Negroes” above) a terrible inadequacy to approach race with anything like the depth, clarity, or particularity required: “I don’t quite accept it that black comics get big laughs making fun of whites, yet white comics cross the line into racism by doing the same toward blacks. ‘White’ and ‘black’ are not really races to me, and I have no wish to make them be, or to make being white a consideration in knowing me. And so I don’t completely understand why black politics, black culture, black literature, black identity are still so widely sanctified and haven’t become passe in the view of most intelligent people.”
He’s wrong and myopic—are black politics, culture, literature, and identity so widely sanctified in the face of so much institutional racism?—but he’s right about one thing, that race isn’t real, at least not in scientific terms: it is, as has been observed elsewhere, a social fiction, but the endurance of that social fiction has made it a social fact. It’s a myth made flesh.
In October 1984, as the Reagan government refused to take AIDS seriously and mocked its sufferers, and the public was largely ignorant and fearful, the New York Times ran an article with the headline “AIDS Studies Hint Saliva May Transmit Infection.” The article distills the scientific paper poorly, as most mainstream journalistic reports of science do. Studies of animal saliva suggested that SAIDS, simian AIDS, could be transmitted between monkeys.
Describing his childhood racism, Ford writes, “Not that I was an ideological racist—a studious hater. In fact, I was quite aware that racial separation seemed arbitrary, slightly puzzling, and I had no experience with black people to make me think they were inferior or worth avoiding. But still I talked the talk, used ‘nigger’ freely, shouted taunts out school-bus windows, went down to the Trailways station in Jackson and watched the Freedom Riders get hosed and dog-bit, pummeled, humiliated, arrested, and didn’t do anything to help. I was a coward. I might just as well have been a hater.”
I’m not sure I see his distinction between coward and hater. I’m not sure I want to.
Behind every good story is a true story.
I have to admit: I’m jealous of Ford. Not just the publication record and acclaim, but that he’s punched. It’s a very male jealousy, which embarrasses me. But I’ve only ever been in one fight: I was nine, I was punched, I fell.
What I’m really jealous of is not knowing whether, in the rare situation I might need to fight back, I’ll be capable. Like many other men, I fantasize about being equipped to fight. But I remember, in college, an acquaintance I didn’t particularly like (he was shallow and smarmy, and handsome to boot) showed up to a party with a dark-red scab across the bridge of his nose. He’d been at a gas station when he saw a man abusing a woman. He intervened and got the scab across his nose for his trouble. I was irritated that I had to admire him and to be a little more jealous.
I’d like that feeling to go away, to dry like spit and leave no stain.
In November 1985, the New York Times ran an article with the headline “Saliva Discounted as an AIDS Threat.” The article mentioned the scientific paper from 1984 but not the Times’ own reporting.
Saliva can heal. Like tears, it contains lysozome. Animals lick their wounds literally. We lick ours figuratively.
Elsewhere in the Gospels, spitting isn’t violent: Jesus uses his spit to heal. In Mark 8 and John 9, Jesus applies his spit to a blind man’s eyes and tells the man to wash it off. And when the blind man washes the spit from his eyes, he can see again.
But Mark 7 is most rich, instructive, yet baffling, in terms of spit. Early on, the Pharisees ask Jesus why his allows his disciples to eat with defiled, unwashed hands. In Mark 7:15, he replies, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” Later in that chapter, Jesus uses his spit to heal a deaf and blind man: “After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ (which means ‘Be opened!’). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.”
I don’t know what’s in my DNA. I don’t know what’s in my past. What has made me, and what have I taken to make myself? It’s all so close. It’s in my body, in my blood, in my spit. I want so much, but I want nothing so much as to be opened and to speak plainly. To know what the body is, and to let the body be. Let it be a parabola; let it fall to dust.
* Names of friends and acquaintances have been changed.
Originally from Arkansas, Charles Green lives in Central New York and teaches writing at Cornell University. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Southeast Review, The Missouri Review, and Tar River Poetry, among other venues.