inessential by Brent Simmons


"Against stupidity, the Gods themselves contend in vain."

-Friedrich von Schiller

How are the gods doing with mendacity, meanness, and ignorance? Not too good. Bummer.

Every word has two histories. One is the etymology -- where the word came from. The other is your personal history with that word.

The word "mendacity" sounds Latin based to me. Let me look it up... According to Merriam-Webster online, it comes from the word mendacious, which is related to the word amend.

I first came across the word mendacity when I was in jail. I was a teenager, barely 18, almost half my life ago. I was in a cell with about 30 other prisoners, in a cell designed to hold about 10. I spent the night on a mat on the concrete floor.

Some of the prisoners had some ratty old books. I hunted around for something to read, and found Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. I asked the guy whose book it was if I could read it, and he let me, he didn't care.

The old man in the story, whose fortune many of the characters were after, kept complaining about the mendacity of his offspring. It was the first time I'd run across that word. Mendacity. It was obvious from the context what it meant. I didn't bother hunting for a dictionary.

I remember envying the character Brick -- played by Paul Newman in the movie, which I later saw. Brick explained to Maggie -- the metaphorical cat on a hot tin roof, played by the fabulous Elizabeth Taylor -- that he would hear a click (note the rhyme) and would become perfectly apathetic. When I was that age, I wanted to hear that click, but never did.

I was arrested with, and stayed in the same cell with, a friend of mine, a bad kid. I was a bad kid, but never mind me, I wasn't anywhere near as bad as this kid.

It was his late-night drunken idea to break into the abandoned school where we let off the fire extinguishers in the hallway, tripped a silent alarm, and then were tracked and found by a German shepherd. The police officer warned us not to move, as Fifi the German shepherd didn't like that.

Consolation: as this happened so long ago, Fifi is undoubtedly dead by now, dead as a doornail, rotting in dog hell.

My friend, the bad kid, he wasn't so bad. Years later I started to refer to him in my mind as coeur de lion. With his friends he had a generous and large heart, as good a heart as anyone I've ever met, it's just that he was also a confused, destructive alcoholic.

About a year later he hanged himself. Unlike with good King Richard, coeur de lion le premier, I can wait all I want, and he's not coming back.

There was an economy in jail. Once a week the prisoners could go to this little jail store. I wasn't there long enough to go to the store. One thing you could buy there was tobacco and rolling papers.

So what I did was trade parts of my next meals for cigarettes. Orange juice was particularly valuable: one orange juice for one cigarette. Other cigarettes cost more than one item.

I've never seen anybody roll a cigarette (of any kind) as swiftly and efficiently as the guy I bought my cigarettes from.

Most of the prisoners I talked to were honest businessmen, fierce proponents of the free enterprise system, men whose lives were dedicated to the simple proposition of buying low and selling high. It's just that instead of scarves or pork futures they were selling a product they weren't supposed to sell, no matter how badly the public craved it.

I remember thinking that were no communists in jail, and that free enterprise does not stop behind bars.

Years later I read in the newspaper that smoking was outlawed in the jail. I wondered what that would do to the jailhouse economy. Bad things.

My friend's name was Steve Voris.

And so "mendacity" has long been one of my favorite words, as it makes me remember my friend, who had no mendacity in him.

I don't think he ever heard the click, except maybe once, I don't know.