Steve Allen, the famous comic, grew up in a rough neighborhood. He says, "Being funny was sometimes necessary for survival. Making the bullies on the corner laugh was the best way to avoid being beaten up."
My husband Bill found that to be true early in our married life. We were living on the south side of Chicago while Bill was finishing graduate school. One night while I was baking, I used the last of the milk in the refrigerator. Bill quickly volunteered to run out to get some on nearby Halsted Street.
It was after 10 o'clock in the evening when Bill left the house. He drove the five blocks to get the milk, but when he returned to the deserted street, he found a dozen tough-looking kids standing in a circle around the car. This looks like trouble, Bill thought. Quickly he considered his options. None of them looked good. Silently he prayed for protection and wisdom. Don't panic, an inner voice seemed to say. Talk to them.
"Hello," Bill said, trying to sound as unconcerned as possible as he walked toward the door on the driver's side of the car, but the gang stood shoulder to shoulder, denying him access.
"Hello yourself," a muscular young man in black leather sneered back. The dozen street kids did not move. Bill was now standing face-to-face with their leader.
"How's Tom?" the leader asked.
Obviously, Bill didn't know anyone these kids knew. But the question called for a response. "I haven't seen Tom for days," he replied.
"How's Julie?" the leader persisted.
Obviously, they were playing some kind of game. The street gang knew the rules. Bill did not, but he kept his cool as he answered, "Julie? If Julie's been around, I haven't seen her."
The leader looked Bill squarely in the eye and asked, "How's Chuck?"
The thought came to Bill, This gang is out to have a good time. Right now they are having it at my expense, making me uncomfortable because I don't know what's going to happen next. Suppose I take them by surprise, and we all have fun doing it?
"Chuck?" Bill replied. "Haven't you heard? Chuck is a streetcar conductor!"
"A streetcar conductor?" the whole gang repeated, almost in unison. It was the last thing they expected to hear. Since my husband and I are both Scandinavian, Bill began to talk in a heavy Scandinavian accent.
"Yah, them streetcar conductors are pretty smart fellows. Why, the other day I go on a streetcar and sat down. I thought the seat next to me was empty, but to my surprise there was a small pocketbook lying there. I wonder, Who lost it? `Not to worry,' I told myself. `It was lost on the streetcar, and it is the streetcar conductor's problem to find the owner. Them streetcar conductors are pretty smart fellows.'
"Well, we bumped along for a minute, then the streetcar jerked to a stop. The streetcar conductor looked around and called out, `Madison!' And would you believe it, just as big as life, Mr. Madison got up and got off that streetcar.
"We bumped along for another couple of blocks, and the street car stopped again. `Washington!' the street car conductor called out. And would you believe it, Mr. Washington got up and got off the streetcar. That streetcar conductor knew everyone on his streetcar and where they were to get off. Them streetcar conductors are pretty smart fellows.
"We bumped along a little farther. Then suddenly, the streetcar stopped. `Jackson!' he called out. Now my name is Jackson, so I got up and got off that streetcar. I wondered why he put me off there. I had never been on that street corner before, but I thought them streetcar conductors are pretty smart fellows, there must be a resason.
"Then I remembered the pocketbook. I wondered if there was any money in it. I opened it and began to count. `One dollar, two dollars, three dollars...' Just then, a man came up to me. I had never seen him before in my life, honest. He said to me, `Excuse me, but I am looking for Jackson.'
"'This is Jackson,' I said proudly.
"'I am looking for sixteen fifty-three,' the stranger said.
"'Mister, here is your money,' I said and gave him the pocketbook. `Them streetcar conductors are pretty smart fellows.'"
The story left the gang in stitches. "Mister, who are you, anyway?" one of them called out.
"I'm the youth pastor at the Foster Park Baptist Church," Bill replied. "Here, take my card and come see me at my place some time."
"Maybe," the leader replied.
Now no one was standing between Bill and his car, so he opened the door, waved to the gang, and drove off. The next day, he discovered that just before his meeting, the gang had stolen a policeman's billy club and roughed him up considerably. Humor, I've said since then, can be a life saver.