Wednesday, September 14, 2011

An alphabetically ordered world

I was hashing out the first week of school recently with a high school English teacher friend of mine. He said the year’s off to a great start.

The kids seem interested, well-behaved, etc.

Who’s in your home room, I asked.

“A good bunch. They’re engaged, respectful --”

That’s not what I’m talking about. What letter kids do you have?

“I have the As. I always get the As. My room is the first one in the hall and that’s where they put all the As.”

See, that bugs Rs like me. While the As could just coast right into their room, I had to walk much farther down the hall.

The extra distance naturally gave me less study time, fewer opportunities to catch up on homework and left me starting each day sweaty and fatigued from the extra exertions.

I blame the As for conversely adding to the reasons why I’ve never gotten very far since high school.

So I’ve never liked As, much less earned any.

I asked my friend if any of the Gs, Ms, Ts or other students called his room the A-hole.

He said no, but I think he’s going to defensively recall our conversation the next time some unruly kid glares at him and mouths, “A-hole!”

I wish more of the world went by alphabetical order. It would ensure we’d meet a better cross section of people.

For instance, I drink in a bar with some Bs, some Ss, some Ms, a pair of Ps, some Ks, a U or two and surnames covering just about every letter in the alphabet except perhaps Q and Z.

And the owner doesn’t discriminate. It’s not like if a neighborhood Quatrini or Zelmore walked in and the owner, a fair-minded C, would say, “We don’t serve your kind in here.”

But while our last names may be varied, we are alike in nearly every other regard. We’re all white, middle-aged, paunchy and have bad haircuts.

There ought to be bars that are ordered just like our old homerooms. It would be a boon to diversity.

That way I’d drink with a Spanish Rodriguez, a Jewish Rabinovitz, an Irish Rafferty, an African-American Robinson and maybe a Korean Rhee.

It would bring me into friendly contact with a whole rainbow of humanity, at least those whose last names begin with R and enjoy getting all pie-eyed every night from 5 to 7 p.m.

The start of school and homeroom order always has me thinking of Theodore Zyzak.

He for more than 40 years was the last name in the 1,853-page Pittsburgh phone book. He may have been the last name in all America. You have to figure if they started calling roll of everyone in America it would take until at least 2019 until he’d get to raise his hand and say, “Here!”

He always fascinated me because I knew in high school some mean boys -- I swear it wasn’t me -- who’d crank call him and ask was it was like to always be last.

Years later, I asked him that very same question in a professional setting for a Pittsburgh Magazine story I did about him and what it was like being first in last.

“Ah, it was awful,” he said. “I never got to enjoy those idle moments after they call your name. No, they’d call my name and it would be, ‘Okay, open your books to page . . .”

The worst, he said, were the inoculations. He’d have to sit there through escalating anxieties as kids were alphabetically summoned and would howl in pain or faint dead away.

He said the only time he ever got called first was when some sergeant felt creative and reversed the alphabet and ordered Zyzak into hazardous duty in Okinawa and later in Korea.

A proud Pole, he said he never considered changing his name to something like “Byzak” or taking the coward’s dodge and having his phone number unlisted.

It’s been years since we talked. I wonder how he’s doing.

For all I know, this noble elderly gent may have recently passed on and is awaiting heavenly summons.

I just hope this time the poor guy doesn’t have to wait an eternity to hear them call his name.

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