Reading in the Waiting Room

“The Timbertoes,” from “Highlights” magazine

My ophthalmologist’s office was crowded. The doctor was behind, there would be a real wait. The place was packed with people (including myself) in unfashionable shades, post-op wear. I found a seat then realized that I had not brought a book or a newspaper.  I was at the mercy of the magazine rack and a meager rack it was—Sports Illustrated, Highlights for Children, and a glossy publication about bat conservation.

As a child, I had never cared for Highlights. I’ll not address here the multiple issues of “Goofus and Gallant” but will mention another feature of the magazine, “The Timbertoes”—it’s a cartoon about “a little wooden family and their adventures.” The adventures are dull by any standard. I’d not thought of “The Timbertoes” for years until recently, when I had occasion to quote the popular American hero Davy Crockett in a piece I was writing—he had lost his seat in the House of Representatives and I recalled that he was discouraged by this and had lit out for the territory, saying, “You can go to hell, I am going to Texas.” But tracking the quote down to the Handbook of Texas Online, I discovered that his victorious opponent in the 1835 election had been one “Adam Huntsman, a peg-legged lawyer,” and that Crockett’s response was actually, “Since you have chosen to elect a man with a timber toe to succeed me, you may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.”

“Timber-toe” dates to the 18th century. Captain Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (a copy’s on my desk): “a man with a wooden leg.” I’ve written about such—prosthetics—elsewhere and very likely will again. If “The Timbertoes” was about a family of amputees Highlights would certainly be a more interesting magazine.

But behind Highlights was a three-month-old copy of Jet.

I’d not seen Jet in a long while, and I settled in with it to wait for the doctor, remembering a Dick Gregory record my parents had had in the 1960s. On it, Gregory had talked about black professionals strolling along, with “Wall Street Journal under one arm, New York Times under the other, and Jet and Ebony tucked in between them.” Compact enough to fit in a purse or back pocket, full of short interviews with black celebrities, profiles of politicians and military men and women, news of the accomplishments of individuals, and coverage of social events, Jet makes black America seem like a small town in which everyone knows or knows of everybody else. It’s newsy, it’s gossipy, it still features a swimsuit-clad “Beauty of the Week.” I recall, from my childhood, that in the captions under photos of two or three people, the people were invariably “chatting,” even if their mouths were closed and they were staring at the camera—here Jet of the 1960s was prescient, predicting our current chat-rooms, chat software, our “live streaming chat.” I also remember, from the 1960s, all the adults complaining about Jet but everybody reading it.

In my waiting-room copy the actress Kerry Washington was profiled, this in relation to her TV show, Scandal. Among the article’s points: Although her character on the show “requires a constant coffee fix, [Washington] doesn’t fiend for caffeine.” I was struck and excited by “fiend” as a verb! I’d not seen this before. What a great verb, I thought. Looking it up later in Clarence Major’s Juba to Jive (a Dictionary of African-American Slang), also in residence on my desk, I found the word listed only as a noun or an adjective—“any thing or person of positive quality; outstanding.” Was I witnessing a new (or nearly new) usage? But then there it was, the verb, on the OED Web site—“slang (orig. and chiefly in the language of rap and hip-hop). intr. To have a strong desire or craving for.” Juba to Jive came out in 1994, but the OED has fiend-as-a-verb citations back to 1988. Scooped—if by hindsight—by the boys at Oxford! I added it in pen to my copy of Juba. A dictionary’s not a static thing.

At the end of the Jet article there were questions for Kerry Washington, a well-known feature of celebrity profiles everywhere. Jet’s generally about a “positive image” for black America, but the second question was a reality check ( “A word or phrase used to bring a person back into the life of those around them.”) having to do with conditions—“If you were arrested, who would be the first person you would call from the slammer?”

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