“Mewling, puking babes. That’s the way we all start,” storyteller and radio/TV personality Jean Shepherd begins the first chapter, “The Endless Streetcar Ride Into Night, and the Tinfoil Noose”, of his short story collection In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. He goes to argue that while we all begin in the same place, key moments in our lives force us to separate to two paths on the “long yellow brick road of life” – one to the stage and one to the stalls.
This question guides Shepherd’s thoughts: “How did they get away from me? When did I make that first misstep that took me forever to the wrong side of the street, to become eternally part of the accursed, anonymous Audience?”
The “Great Divide”, as Shepherd calls it, falls upon us not because of talent or personality, but because of our reactions to the moments in which the “cosmic searchlight of Truth shines full upon [us].” When we see ourselves for who we are, we either shrug it off and embrace the next moment or hide and hope that no one else sees us.
At a blind date with the girlfriend of his best friend’s girlfriend, such a revelation hits Shepherd.
The afternoon of his blind date, Shepherd spends two hours preparing his wardrobe: a too-wide and too-long, electric blue sport coat whose shoulders wouldn’t fit through a door, a pair of flannel slacks fulled to his armpits, and a ridiculously-sized tie with a snail painted on the front.
Shepherd’s outfit symbolizes the lot of the Audience: Because of his sport coat, he cannot easily pass through the doors through which the Successful walk. Because of his slacks, he cannot walk with dignity anyway. His tie is the silver noose of the title; his gesture of decorum is misguided and will ruin him. The snail, an unattractive accessory, speaks to life’s slow pace and burdens (like the snail’s shell).
Beholding this unflattering outfit, we are prepared for a punchline that we assume condemns Shepherd to the Audience.
If you haven’t read the short story, I won’t spoil the end for you. At the bottom of this article I’ve included a link to the full text. Here, I want to play with Shepherd’s argument. How much of preaches the truth; how much exaggerates?
How valid is the introduction? Is the division between Us and Them so stark? In English class, in a response to “The Endless Street Car Into Night”, I noted, “His opening assertion on the division of society into leaders and followers has fundamental truth, but is hyperbole in understating the importance of the latter.”
A related question follows: Who is to say that being part of the Audience is not another’s view on success? Some of us do not wish to be “[o]fficial people, peering out…from television screens, magazine covers…forever appearing in newsreels, carrying attache cases, surrounded by banks of microphones while the world waits for their decisions and statements.”
Another question to consider is, How does socioeconomic background impact one’s attainment of success as Shepherd defines it? The American dream promises success to the hard workers, but this declaration is an ideal, not the reality. Even if they respond “correctly” to the moments that should set them on the stage, factors like race, income, and education hinder uplift. It is harder for some to rise than others. (The comic “On a Plate”, by Auckland-based Toby Morris, illustrates this.)
What do you think about Shepherd’s evaluation of society and success? I’d love to hear your input in the comments.
Click here to read “The Endless Streetcar Into Night, and the Tinfoil Noose.”
This post is inspired by a discussion in my Fall 2018 English class.