Contrary to popular wisdom, in my experience many of the best comebacks are not cutting. L’esprit d’escalier is all well and good, but take it from me, zingers aren’t what they’re cracked up to be: when you grow up in a family that fights almost exclusively below the belt, you learn to wound early, and also that the act of attacking leaves you feeling bad, not triumphant. I’ll never forget being snapped at by an angry customer in a deli as a small child. “Ignore her, Sades,” my dad said loudly. “She’s an unhappy, lonely person with no one in her life who cares about her.” I’ve forgotten her expression of shocked misery; I know that only from my dad’s rueful telling.
Hurting people is easy, and usually not useful. Better, as a rule, are tactics of confusion. Not that this is a strategy on my part, mind you; a few years back, when I made intense eye contact with a Children’s International street canvasser and said with intense seriousness, “You’re doing incredibly important work,” it was spontaneous and weirdly sincere. If said canvasser looked startled and backed away uncertainly without soliciting any money from me, well, that was a fringe benefit. I’ve had similarly satisfactory results from singing and dancing in a way that suggests I simply cannot be contained. I also have a history of grinning broadly when I’m lost after dark in what might be considered dangerous neighborhoods.
When I went to the farmers’ market near Columbia University and saw the man standing on Broadway, holding up a large hand-lettered sign that read, on one side, FREEDOM OF SPEECH, and on the other, JEWS CONTROL EVERYTHING, my reaction was instinctive. People were studiously avoiding him or glaring or looking distressed. I read the words and met his eyes. “Oh, if only we did!” I said heartily.
He looked startled; I think he was braced for a lot of things, but not that.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.