SHE CAME UP TO the paper once. She was very pretty and had a French name. Very confusing. She was, in fact, Polish. That was very important to her. She was the battler against Polish jokes. She was the executive director of the Polish American Congress. Very pretty. Now she's gone - married, I'm told. A man has taken her place. Have you heard the one about the Pole . . .?
For a while, I thought I would do a column about Polish jokes. I thought I would write about the lady with the French name who was leading the battle against Polish jokes - the Washington lobbyist for the Polish-American community. I decided against it. I decided I have never heard a Polish joke that was not funny. I decided not to be a hypocrite.
Funny thing about Polish jokes. I never really understood the basis for them. I lived once in a Polish neighborhood and my best friend, for a time, was Johnny K. We used to go to the Holy Rosary Church together - Johnny, his brother, Tommy, and his mother, Mitzi. His father, Johnny Senior, never went to church and the truth is that I did not go more than once or twice. The truth is that Johnny became an altar boy and then a doctor or a dentist or something and the truth is also that his father was a small-time bookie who died of a heart attack when the cops raided his parlor one day. I did not know it then, but this was a Polish joke: "Have you heard the one about the Polish bookie . . .?"
Later, I lived among Italians. They were very tough. They scared me. One of them was named Ray and one day, in school, he strode across the room and, in full view of the teacher, brought his fist down on the back of some kid. The kid crumpled in pain and I thought the kid would be paralyed for life. The teacher was terrified and Ray just went back to his seat like nothing had happened.
I thought all Italians were like this - very tough. I found out later I was mistaken. Later I found out from the jokes that they were all cowards and couldn't fight. The jokes made no sense to me, but I listened to them anyway and told a few myself but I would make sure not to tell a joke like that in front of someone like Ray. I know better. I know Italians are not cowards. Still, have you heard the one about the Italians on a desert island . . .?
It's wonderful how we believe lies. There was a block party at my neighborhood and there was a guy there who is a specialist on Italy and he mentioned how the Italians have arrested most of these terrorists and the Germans have either allowed them to escape or watched them so closely that they have commited suicide in their cells. You know what we believe? he said. We believe that the Germans are efficient and the Italians are incompetent. And wonderful lovers. And cowards.
I still think Polish jokes are funny. Even the man who is now exective director of the Polish-American Congress, Leonard F. Walentynowicz, thinks some Polish jokes are funny. He thinks, though, that most of them are cruel and degrading and they would be just as funny if you said nothing about nationality or ethnicity and simply said, "Did you hear the one about the stupid guy . . .?" I think maybe he's wrong.
I think people like Polish jokes because they are so blunt, so nasty, so unreasonable, so untrue. They are the last of the little sticks of prejudice you can still trot out, the heirs to a proud tradition of jokes about blacks and Indians and Jews and Swedes - remember when Swedes were dumb and not sexy? - and women. There is something else at work as well, something that has to do with a sense of community that develops when someone tells a Polish joke. There is the tacit understanding that we are about to participate in something naughty and that we all have something in common - the naughtiness of the joke and the fact that we are not Polish.
I don't know. I know that I've thought a lot about Polish jokes since that visit in the office and sometimes I want to say something about how we all know that these jokes are overstated and not true and that even the Poles know, for crying out loud, that we are kidding. Not that it matters, anyway. I mean we always make sure that they're around. I mean, it's a joke, after all.
Then the other day something happened. A man in Cleveland made up a printed card and its message was about being proud if your name ended in SKI. He said S stands for Skill and K stands for Knowledge and I stands for Intelligence and some guys were showing its around, giggling. They showed it to a woman who is very smart, Radcliffe and all that, and she sort of looked up at them, puzzled. Her face dropped and she looked very sad and it was then that I remembered something. I remembered she was Polish.