Seriously, Who Does The Jokes Around Here?

November 2011

It was Friday, just before Yom Kippur. That’s right, the Jewish day of atonement. I met Maurice Kanbar, the genius who invented Skyy vodka, at his usual table on Union Street, outside Perry’s. This has been Maurice’s near-daily venue for over 20 years.

“I love watching the people passing by,” exclaims Maurice. He will even accost people in a friendly way, and, though they are sometimes taken aback, he will demand their opinions on man, God and law. Or even vodka. What’s the difference? On occasion, vodka seems to have a heavy influence over those loftier notions. Maurice is a born boulevardier – that’s how they would describe gentlemen such as Gérard de Nerval or Paul-Marie Verlaine in 19th century Paris as these talented, scurrilous cats went about their urban sojourns. One difference, though, is that de Nerval, who dragged a lobster on a leash along the avenue, would not likely allow Maurice to plunge the crustacean into a boiling pot just to make a brand-new Extract of Lobster vodka. The poet would bristle at the temerity of such an assault on his friendly crustacean pal, even though he did not seem to mind dragging it over the filthy pavements of Gay Paree.

I dunno. Let’s give it some thought. Lobster vodka isn’t such a bad idea. I’ll leave it to Maurice. He can invent anything out of anything. His mind simply does not shut down. I know there are days when he wishes it would. It must be tough to have a teeming brain going on like the utilities do.

The other day I was at the Castro Mission Health Center, where the always sympathetic and charming Dr. Deborah Brown ordered a couple of shots for me. I would have preferred the shots down the street at The Twin Peaks saloon – but let’s not be silly. No, Dr. Brown ordered the nurse to “stab” me (Dr. Brown’s word) with a vaccine against hepatitis B and pneumonia. Funny thing. As the gal was administering the shots, I told her that my friend Maurice Kanbar had invented those plastic protective coverings over the needles and syringes decades ago. This keeps the person giving the shots from being accidentally infected with HIV and Gawd knows what.

“It’s the invention I am most proud of,” Maurice told me the other day. Sure, the shots in either arm hurt a little bit, but look at the way Mr. Kanbar has protected the healthcare persons who administer them. They are really at risk. I just get one shot at a time. There’s a difference between an inventor and a hero. There are days when I would not care to discern the difference. Yom Kippur is not only a day of atonement, it’s a day for gratitude. Fine line, no? I have much to atone for – yes, I sure do. But I have much to be grateful for too.

By the way, Maurice, who is fond of saying, “I do the jokes around here,” is coming out with a new memoir in a few months. I suggest, as a working title, that it be called “I Do the Jokes Around Here.” Of course there a subtitle: “Secrets of an Inventor’s Notebook.” But that’s his choice. I am more intrigued with what’s inside this inventor’s heart.

Who am I to argue with Maurice? After all, truly funny people are very, very serious. And Maurice does the jokes around here.

Bruce Bellingham is the author of Bellingham by the Bay, and comes up with arts pieces for Northside San Francisco. Send him some protective thoughts at [email protected]