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I flew into New York last week, descending over the East River onto LaGuardia, and outside Baggage Claim I was surprised to find men and women in official yellow vests guiding us tourists toward the taxi stand, helping with luggage, saying, “Welcome to New York” and “Thanks for using LaGuardia” and “Enjoy the city.” This is not the New York that we Minnesotans expect to find, but thank goodness the cabdrivers are still genuine New York cabdrivers, surly, scrappy, contemptuous of the stupidity all around them.

lightbulb joke

In Minneapolis, the cabdriver who drove me to the airport told me, without prompting, about his brief career as a guitarist in a band, his failed marriage, the difficulty of getting back to music. Call me a cynic but it struck me as a plea for a big tip, which I, a Minnesotan, duly gave him. In New York, no cabdriver would take that tack. He is a fighter who will get you from the airport to the Upper West Side five minutes faster than anyone else could.

I sat next to a woman once who, I swear, was listening to Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” while looking at a solid wall of people’s legs and rear ends. Everywhere, you see the resilience of the human spirit.

New York is a good place to visit when you feel the country is falling apart. On the island of Manhattan, high-rises keep rising, water mains break, rush hour is crazy, you can’t help but feel the fragility of the complexity of the place and yet people cope. They cram into subway cars and find privacy in a book or a pair of headphones. I sat next to a woman once who, I swear, was listening to Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” while looking at a solid wall of people’s legs and rear ends. Everywhere, you see the resilience of the human spirit.

The country is splintering, farmers going broke, government stewardship of the planet is a dead issue, the Arctic is melting, we’ve come to accept dishonesty in high places, and in January we watched the cruel punishment of Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., chained to a chair and forced to listen to the Senate’s impeachment trial, like making Wynton Marsalis listen to one hundred hours of air horns. But the president won a big victory, just as the state of Kansas did in the Super Bowl, and now we move on to other matters, such as socialism: what percentage of American voters consider themselves socialist? Five? Eight? Three?

My phone rang in the cab. It was a friend I’d recently been miffed with. She said, “My kid told me a joke and I thought of you. Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

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“Amish who?”

“That’s funny, you don’t look like a shoe.”

It was the first knock-knock joke I’d heard in years: I don’t know many nine-year-olds. I am a mature American male, a tax-paying Episcopalian, and this joke kills me. It made me forget whatever it was I was miffed at her about. This is the beauty of jokes: if they’re funny, they erase bad feeling. “Why don’t Amish water-ski?” I ask. “Because it’s so hard on the horses.” She groans but she is amused.

I’m sad that the light bulb joke has vanished in America, it was clever, often funny, but it made fun of categories of people and this was seen as offensive. How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? (One but the lightbulb has to want to change.) Irishmen. (One to hold the bulb, nine to drink until the room spins.) Jewish mothers. (None. I’ll just sit in the dark and suffer.) Episcopalians. (None, we have candles.) Amish. (What light bulb?) Germans. (Nein.) Comedians. (This is not a joke, it’s a question.)

Trump is the first president in my lifetime who’s incapable of telling a joke, a remarkable thing about him, plus his inability to smile. When he refers to dissident Republicans as “human scum” and African countries as toilets, he’s not kidding. This is old-fashioned New York street talk. Trump is New York through and through, elected by Midwesterners who were charmed to find out that someone could talk like that and run for public office. They decided we needed an abusive leader.


Meanwhile, the yellow vests at LaGuardia who said “Welcome to New York” were under strict orders from a powerful boss who can fire them in five seconds: this was not voluntary, trust me. I liked our cabdriver. He didn’t tell us about his problems, he just got us where we were going. Meanwhile, the big news is that Melania has put Trump on a diet so he loses five pounds a week. In a year, we’ll be rid of him entirely.

Garrison Keillor
Prairie Home Productions