Let’s discuss the phrase, “shit from shinola”. This is one of those phrases I grew up hearing amidst casual grown-up parent talk.
“Forget working with Bob. He doesn’t know shit from shinola.” I’d overhear my dad saying on the phone, as 7-year-old me would be rolling around on the floor, mastering my breakdancing moves. I remember thinking, what did Bob do at work? I pictured a little mound of poo off in the corner and his boss pointing it out to him saying, “This Bob, is shit.” Then he would march him to another corner of the dimly lit office, pointing to a sparkly metallic object that chimed like a gameshow glockenspiel. “And here Bob is the shinola.” But Bob would get confused and ask his boss to show him the difference again and again. Perhaps my dad suggested not working with him because after being asked to provide shit to customers he would repeatedly show up with shinola, and eventually, management had to let him go.
I never actually asked what the phrase meant because it had the word “shit” in it. Soon though, I would develop a love affair with that word which would rival my love of scratch-n-sniff stickers.
I fondly remember the year I started to curse. It was after a particularly corrupting session at Jewish summer camp when I was desperately trying to gain the affections of my best friend, Eliza. She was an East Coast, blue-eyed, frizzy blonde haired, olive-skinned Jew. We were bunkmates and in my mind, soul mates from the moment she shared her butterscotch candies with me at the canteen.
Around that same time, I remember feeling the strong urge to get muscles. And so began my first conscious attempt to become “butch”. (My only other attempt to become butch came many years later, when I took up perpetual slouching, and attempted to hide my long hair under a ski cap for two weeks straight.) Every night before bed, I did twenty push-ups and wore sleeveless tee-shirts in the hopes she would notice my bulging biceps. I envisioned Eliza would become so entranced by my shiny new muscles, she’d suggest we sing Simon and Garfunkel songs together and make bird feeders out of peanut butter and pine cones. Yes, I had big plans for the two of us. I wanted to smoosh against her and braid her frizzy blonde afro and steal her away from that ten-year-old good-for-nothing boy, Adam Lebowitz.
Adam Lebowitz had a brown bowl cut, Ricky Schroder freckles and the forehead of a Viking. He was probably a descendant of someone like Ragnar Lodbrok. Eliza laughed at his jokes and thought it was so cool how he could skip the rocks across the lake. She also seemed particularly entertained every time he used the word, “shit”. Taking notice of how this impressed her, I decided to ease up on the muscle mania and make it my mission to become the funniest joke-telling rock thrower this Jewish summer camp had ever seen. I also happened to turn into a cursing machine.
“Aw shit, it’s time for prayers!” I’d scowl and slyly look over to notice Eliza giggling.
“That’s shit on your shoe!” And more laughter would follow.
“Shit I got cast as Moses in the camp play!” I was on fire and Eliza loved it. I had her laughing at every prayer and while I might have been cursing myself straight to a doomed afterlife of taking the Lord’s name in vain, I eventually got to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with her.
But at the end of the summer session, after having worked hard to turn into a verbal wastebasket, it wasn’t me who Eliza went into the woods with to “say goodbye”. It was shit-faced Adam.
I came back at the beginning of my 5th-grade year ready to shit all over everything. I didn’t win the heart of Eliza, but I had laid the groundwork for mastering my tough girl language. So much so, I even offended my next crush and the cutest boy in class, Elliot, who I swear on Grepthar’s Hammar looked like a pre-teen version of Tom Cruise. With his pigeon-toed run, dreamy overbite and his suave ability to “slice” in handball, he was the perfect boy. He beat everyone effortlessly with his smooth 10-year-old skills. But I wanted to win! So out came the shits like water from a spout. Accompanied by my unusual arm strength, I cursed my way through every game, winning triumphantly but losing like a baby John Mcenroe.
“Shit man! That ball was clearly out!” Elliot and the rest of my classmates stood in awe at my newly formed gutter mouth.
“Let’s get the playground monitor. We need a second opinion on this shit.” All those summer pushups had inflated my head with a new found confidence and I started to command the respect of both the popular kids and the bullies alike.
I then began to realize the power of the curse word and felt its necessity in every exciting situation.
“Shit! It’s time for 4-square dancing!”
“Shith I lost a tooth!”
I was mindful of my new power and when I saw a fellow classmate being bullied I knew how to diffuse the situation.
Gentle giant footed Benny, had tractor trailers for feet. This beautiful man-child, no taller than 4’10’’ clomped around the playground like a Clydesdale stuck in a snowstorm. He had the eyes of a baby deer and the ears of Ross Perot but I knew this kid was going to be a knockout. Eventually. Whenever the other kids would make fun of his boxcars, I’d step in and tell them they didn’t know shit. He could kick their shit so hard they wouldn’t know what hit them. So they better just take their shit back to hopscotch and leave him alone.
“Thanks, Nina. That was nice of you.” He said to me one recess when the kids were giving him grief about wearing shoes glued together because his toes were pushing open the seams on his size 14 sneakers.
“Benny, don’t let those shitty kids bother you. You’re sturdy like one of those torso dummies.” It felt good using curse words to protect and serve. I often wonder if Benny took this to heart and went on to become a boxer or human mannequin.
I grew braver as the school year went on and eventually found myself cursing in class. “Shit!” I’d mutter under my breath one day during the spelling test, “How do you spell church?” There was no necessity to know how to spell it up until that very moment. I turned to my seatmate Andie, she had no idea. She was a clueless Jew like myself.
“What are we gonna do?” She panicked. In our minds, all of fifth grade was riding on this spelling quiz. If we failed, who knows, we might not get into college.
“Don’t worry, I know what to do.” I confidently winked at her and turned to another seatmate. Across from us sat an evangelical Christian, Chris Christensen. He’d surely know.
“Pssst. Chris.” I whispered. “How the hell do you spell, church?” Luckily he wasn’t so religious that it kept him from cheating and helping two neurotic Jewish girls avert a pre-pubescent meltdown. The lightbulb went off in my head after he told me. “C-H-U-R-C-H!” Hallelujah.
There I was, a dirty-mouthed degenerate at the tender age of 8, mastering the art of peace negotiation on the playground and spelling in the classroom. I like to think that my shits played some sort of public service role in making the world a little better place. I guess in a way, I have Adam Leibowitz to thank for that. While I didn’t get the girl, I learned how a little bravado can go a long way.