Punch, Brothers


Our Daily Correspondent

Do it. Do it!

The other night, we had the chance to see the Mets play the Dodgers. In an effort to rally the team, the jumbotron repeatedly blared that “Everybody clap your HANDS!” command—accompanied at Citi Field by a graphic of Mr. Met leading the cheer—and we all furiously, dutifully clap-clap-clap-clap-clap-clap-clapped until Andre Ethier went down in the bottom of the ninth and we trudged sullenly onto the 7 train.

Now, a couple days later, my sore hands have ceased to ache and the smell of hot dogs has faded from my jersey—but that chant is still in my head. It follows me wherever I go, an insistent tattoo on the back of my brain. Mr. Met bobs through my dreams, clapping and beaming. Yesterday, apropos of nothing, my husband texted me the words of the chant. Periodically, the two of us break into joyless but insistent clapping. 

It made me think of Mark Twain’s “A Literary Nightmare.” In the 1876 story, Twain recalls coming across the following bit of doggerel in the newspaper: 

Conductor, when you receive a fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!
A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,
A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,
A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

Punch, brothers! punch with care!
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

Twain writes,

They took instant and entire possession of me. All through breakfast they went waltzing through my brain; and when, at last, I rolled up my napkin, I could not tell whether I had eaten anything or not. I had carefully laid out my day’s work the day before—thrilling tragedy in the novel which I am writing. I went to my den to begin my deed of blood. I took up my pen, but all I could get it to say was, “Punch in the presence of the passenjare.” I fought hard for an hour, but it was useless. My head kept humming, “A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare, a buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,” and so on and so on, without peace or respite. The day’s work was ruined—I could see that plainly enough. I gave up and drifted down-town, and presently discovered that my feet were keeping time to that relentless jingle.

In a 1915 article, the New York Times investigated the origins of the rhyme. It seems it was, indeed, printed in the paper—the Times IDs it only as “The Tribune”—and as a result of Twain’s piece it became a sensation. (Richard Dawkins has referred to it as a nineteenth-century meme.) Wags translated it into Latin; it was translated into French. “The streets were full of it; in Harvard it became an epidemic.”

Many years before he would have Mr. Met tattooed on his left bicep, my brother would listen to audiobooks every night. He had a recording of this piece. The reader was good, and we both found it hilarious. But hearing it read aloud made it doubly insidious as an earworm. Indeed, I think Twain’s story shows something about the way people used to assimilate text: just reading the words silently to himself was enough to implant them in his brain.

It strikes me that both chants have the mandate of collective will behind them—the pleasure of being part of a mob, and of both believing in and secretly doubting the power of words. 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.