Bernice-ing (verb): A Handy Guide to Enjoying the Company of Strangers

Bernice, looking directly at Val, while collecting some bridal party intel.

Bernice, looking directly at Val, while collecting some bridal party intel through the reflection in her shades.

BS (before surgery) I was a really good typist, and I enjoyed doing it. I was annoyed when folks started doing their own; this shift in labor ate up a lot of temp jobs, and I loved temping! Typing the correspondence of others gave me my first glimpse of executive thinking: I would plug myself into the Dictaphone and learned that people who had people to take their dictation could be kind of Dictaphones themselves. There was a lot of bombastic, threatening bullying going on, and I got to hear a lot of it from my desk. It was like Berniecing, only in print.

Berneicing is a particular type of eavesdropping, perfected by my mother, Bernice. People tried to emulate her style and skill without success. Berneicing is distinct from other forms of spying because, while you are actively listening to other (diners, launderers, podiatrists), you must appear engaged with your present company while you are 100% ignoring them.  This is skill #1.  If you think you might be the victim of Berneicing, you can find out by inserting something utterly ridiculous into the conversation. This is best accomplished with a full mouth covered by a little hand-to-to-the lips action, signaling the listener that what you are saying is so important that it can’t wait until you finish chewing your fried calamari. This is skill #2.

A short play, to illustrate:

Interior: Local neighborhood Friendly’s, full of ice cream-covered hyperactive children who were cute and clean when they arrived.

Time: One minute to opening, so Bernice can get her optimal FBI Super-Clearance preferred booth.

Me:        (After I first notice I have lost her attention):  “I think I might have cut my toe off with the orange machete last night.”

Bernice makes eye contact but does not react.

Me:        “I wrapped it in toilet paper and have it in my purse. Would you like to see it?”

Bernice: (nodding): “These onion rings taste fishy.” She is (Totally entranced by the goings-on in the neighboring booth now yet able to run some camouflage babble-skill #3): “Did you see Days of our Lives this week?”

Me:        Mom, this is a lame attempt you are making to get the subject off my bloody toe!

Bernice: (Lips moving, no sound emitting): [silence]

Me:        “What?”

Bernice: (returning to the conversation, as if coming out of anesthesia):

“Where is that waitress with our ice cream?”

Me:        “We didn’t order it yet.”

Bernice: “Well we better get going soon, or we’ll miss Days Of Our Lives.”

Having fully joined the here and now, we exit the popular ice cream establishment, and Bernice lights a cigarette when she gets in her 1991 Crown Victoria. I always thought she didn’t smoke outdoors because it would ruin nature. For whatever reason, she always sealed us in before turning on the air-conditioner, (to help with my asthma).

Bernice: “What were you saying in there about a bloody toe?” This is the final, most important (#4) skill.  Although she didn’t appear attentive, she never missed a single word.

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