THE HEAVYWEIGHT BOXER Jack Dempsey was once accosted while dining by a rude little fellow, and bore all his insults and antagonism with a sweet good temper that nobody around him could fathom. When the popinjay departed, well satisfied that he had come off the better man, Jack's friends asked wonderingly why he had tolerated the impertinence, and indeed repaid it with soft words. Dempsey replied, "When you're the heavyweight champion of the world, you can afford to be polite."

For the same reasons, Death, too, is a polite man. Even the heavyweight champion of the world is no match for Death. Death's work is difficult and unrelenting, and he knows how afraid we are and therefore softens the encounter with the most exquisite good manners. "When you have to kill a man," Winston Churchill once said, "it costs nothing to be polite." Death is a polite man. Death is a big man; big in bone and heavy and strong. He has to be to bear all the weight of his tasks alone. Our friend of last resort, sometimes longed for, always feared, Death treads his patient round from house to house, and always brings a little gift. He tips his hat, and holds out his hand and takes yours and kindly says, "It's time to go. Come with me, please." And he asks so very politely that you simply cannot say no. So, you take his hand and think, "What a nice man. I can't imagine why I was so fearful of him all along. Perhaps the stories I heard of him were exaggerated, or untrue altogether."

When Death comes calling, you are always "at home."

March 3, 1995

Knock, Knock Reference to the 1950's joke series that always begin, "Knock, knock," to which the response is always, "Who's there?" The earliest I recollect then goes, "Little old lady," to which the response is, "Little old lady who?" and the final line is, "I didn't know you could yodel!"

To be "at home" is to be receiving visitors. Women's calling cards in the 19th century often carried a line indicating that they were "at home" between certain hours on certain days of the week, when callers could come and pay formal visits. At other times, they were, correspondingly, not "at home," and formal visits were not encouraged. If a person were out of favor, you would be "not at home" to him or her.


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