I’ve been reading essays by Joseph Mitchell, stories which were published back in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s in the New Yorker magazine. He was quite a writer, a denizen of New York who liked to hang out with fisher-folk and river-men. Mitchell had that rare gift — he could imaginatively reconstruct conversations. I’ll present some more examples in a subsequent post, but here’s a well-depicted scene from a bygone era. One fine spring day Mitchell was visiting a shad fisherman on his barge:
Some young girls — there were perhaps a dozen of them, and they were eight or nine or maybe ten years old — had come down one of the paths from River Road, and now they were chasing each other around on the riverbank. They were as overexcited as blue jays, and their fierce, jubilant, fresh young voices filled the air.
“School’s out,” said Harry.
Several of the girls took up a position near the shore end of the footwalk to Harry’s barge. Two of them started turning a rope and singing a rope-jumping song, a third ran in and started jumping the rope, and the others got in line. The song began:"Mama, Mama, I am ill. Send for the doctor To give me a pill. Doctor, Doctor, Will I die? Yes, my child, And so will I --- "
Mr. Hewitt looked at them gloomily. “They get louder every year,” he said.
[Some time went by as the four men talked and enjoyed the day. Let’s rejoin them:]
Mr. Townsend and Mr. Hewitt and I had been listening closely to Harry, and none of us had been paying any further attention to the young girls jumping rope on the riverbank. Shortly after Harry stopped talking, all of us became aware at the same moment that the girls turning the rope were singing a new song. Just then, the girl jumping missed a jump, and another girl ran in to take her place, whereupon the girls turning the rope started the new song all over again. Their voices were rollicking, and they laughed as they sang. The song began:"The worms crawl in, The worms crawl out. They eat your guts And spit them out. They bring their friends And their friends' friends too, And there's nothing left When they get through...."
Harry laughed. “They’ve changed it a little,” he said. “That line used to go, ‘And you look like hell when they get through.’ ”
” ‘The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out. They play pinochle on your snout,’ ” said Mr. Townsend. “That’s the way I remember it. ‘One little worm who’s not so shy crawls up your nose and out your eye.’ That’s another line I remember.”
“Let’s go inside,” said Mr. Hewitt. “It’s getting cold out here. We’ll all catch pneumonia.”
“You know what they used to say about pneumonia, Joe,” Harry said. ” ‘Pneumonia is the old man’s friend’ ”
“A lot of what they used to say,” said Mr. Hewitt, “could just as well’ve been left unsaid.”