This morning the duck-rabbit poked its bill out of its hole and, finding its ears pleasantly twitching at the sound of birdsong, scrambled up to ground level. It was a perfect day, the duck-rabbit thought to itself, for a frolicsome romp on the Heath. The duck-rabbit, it must be confessed, is not in the best shape at the moment due to its sedentary lifestyle and insistence that its kind can subsist on marmalade and coffee alone. But exercise would clear the head and lift the spirits, yes? To be sure, the duck-rabbit got some odd looks from the native ducks, and a few withering glances from the native rabbits, as it scamper-waddled across the Heath. But nothing could dampen the pleasure of this balmy morning.
Indeed, quite unexpectedly, the duck-rabbit found that its jaunt on the Heath provided not only fresh air and exercise but also restored its faith in humanity. This was the scene (let’s switch to the first-person, shall we?): I was loping along with the ponds on my right. I turned right after passing the Model Boating Pond and then turned left on the shady wooded path that takes you along past the Ladies’ Pond and eventually up to the Kenwood Estate. But when I turned left I noticed something unexpected on the path before me. There was a figure, about 20 feet away from me, lying on the ground under a red blanket. Surrounding the figure were, as I recall, five other figures, one kneeling down, the others standing.
The attitude of the people standing, who seemed to be casually chatting, did not suggest that there was a medical emergency. My initial hypothesis, oddly, was that the figure lying down was a woman about to give birth. And I must admit, my first thoughts upon arriving at this conclusion were not terribly charitable. They went something like this. “Really? Is this where the natural birthing movement has led us? To a healing circle of friends chanting some kind of uterus-relaxing mantra around this expectant woman lying in the mud so that her babe will be immediately received into the nurturing embrace of the Ladies’ Pond community?”
Then I noticed that two of the figures were police officers, one man, one woman. I adjusted my hypothesis accordingly. The woman had wanted to give birth in the Ladies’ Pond; but the police had forcibly removed her because the mother-to-be was not positive of the baby’s sex and concerns were raised about the possibility that the baby might turn out to be a boy, which would be terribly problematic given that it is clearly stated on the sign posted on the railings outside the Ladies’ Pond, “MEN NOT ALLOWED BEYOND THIS POINT.”
I slowed down, not sure if it was appropriate to run past. And as I slowed I took in more details about the group that seemed to indicate I had jumped to the wrong conclusion. The woman under the blanket was quite elderly, well beyond child-bearing years, I’m going to speculate. At this point I also noticed the different ages and colors and general demeanor of the assembled group. The elderly woman lying down, who looked tired but calm and not in distress, was South Asian. Kneeling next to her, with an expression of concern, was a middle-aged East Asian woman. The other standing figures were white, the non-uniformed young women looking to be in their twenties, chatting easily to the two police officers who stood, at once casually but protectively around the woman prone on the ground. Now I started to wonder if I had stumbled into a Marina Abramović piece about class, race, and the three ages of womanhood.
But, dear readers, at this very same moment my sentiments also began to shift away from eye-rolling snark towards being, somehow, rather moved. Clearly, the woman had had an accident of some kind, and the group was now waiting for help (and indeed, when I ran past in the other direction fifteen minutes later, I saw that she was being helped into an ambulance). What was moving, I suppose, is that the other women from the pond (for I supposed that all the women aside from the female police officer had been swimming) were not going anywhere. It was not necessary for them all to wait with her for the ambulance, but they were. And they were taking care of her, kindly, easily. I had no reason to suppose that any of the women were friends or relatives. And I know from former years when I used to be a regular swimmer at the pond that you do often see the same people there, day in, day out, without ever necessarily exchanging words with them. But it is a community, a real community, one, it seems, that you can depend upon to help you out should you find yourself in a vulnerable position. And I found it heartening that this group of women, on a weekday morning, around 8:30, when they probably needed to be getting back home and getting on with their busy lives, had decided to stick around and wait with this woman for the ambulance.
The scene, I suppose, was particularly striking to me because it provided a vivid contrast with an experience I’d had the previous day that had left me feeling alienated and positively misanthropic. I’d hop-waddled to the local gym, which I’d joined just for a month with the view that it might help ameliorate the effect of all the marmalade (and, let’s be honest, the Campari spritzes; it turns out the duck-rabbit is quite partial to them). The duck-rabbit, who generally, as you will gather, feels a bit out of place, tends to feel particularly conspicuous in gyms, where it is often unsure how to operate the various pieces of machinery, yet also finds itself too shy to ask for assistance, sometimes leading to farcical, Mr. Bean-like mishaps on the treadmill. More often, the duck-rabbit will simply approach, say, some kind of weight-lifting contraption, try to figure out how it works by moving various levers and knobs, and then, giving up, affect an air of nonchalance as if it had been merely inspecting the machine, giving it a once-over just, you know, to make sure it was in proper working order. Yup, everything looks good here. Oh, no, I didn’t want to use it, you go right ahead. What? No, I don’t need help with it, actually, I was just looking at it and now I’m done and everything seems to be as it should be so you just carry on.
Anyway, as I was making my way over to one of the weight machines I was fairly confident I knew how to operate, I passed a man, a large man, meaning both tall and robustly-built. He was just pacing around in circles in a somewhat preening fashion the way that some men in gyms do in between “sets” on their chosen piece of equipment. I had to walk right past him to get to my machine, and it was impossible not to notice his T-shirt. It was bright white, new looking. Emblazoned on it in big black bold capitals across the chest were the words “BITCHES ALWAYS DO.” The duck-rabbit’s whiskers tingled; its feathers ruffled; its fur stood on end. “BITCHES ALWAYS DO.” Huh. Right you are then. Hmmmm. The duck-rabbit found it quite interesting, at this moment, to introspect and reflect on the thoughts and sensations coursing through it. They included the following:
- BITCHES ALWAYS DO could be read as an elliptical verbal phrase that only makes sense when you know the sentence that preceded it. So, the phrase “I do” might be one’s response to a question such as “Do you like marmalade?” So then the question is, what is the question to which “Bitches always do” is the answer? Is it, for example:
Q: Do bitches always have an X chromosome?
A: Bitches always do.
Q: Do bitches always give birth to live young?
A: Bitches always do.
- BITCHES ALWAYS DO could also be read as an ambiguous sentence that you expect to end with an intransitive verb but then confounds you by ending with “do,” which one would normally expect to operate transitively in this kind of sentence, i.e. taking a direct object which here remains tantalizingly unspecified.
So this, accordingly, was the question that the Duck-Rabbit simply could not get out of its uh, heads. BITCHES ALWAYS DO WHAT??? The possibilities were, literally, endless. Here were some of my favorites. Some only make sense in British English:
- BITCHES ALWAYS DO ENGLISH AT UNIVERSITY.
- BITCHES ALWAYS DO SALMON IN THIS REALLY NICE WAY THAT I CAN NEVER QUITE REPRODUCE AT HOME.
- BITCHES ALWAYS DO ME WRONG: SIGH.
- BITCHES ALWAYS DO VERY WELL THANK YOU, AND YOU?
- BITCHES ALWAYS DO WELL TO REMEMBER MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT.
- BITCHES ALWAYS DO DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS.
- BITCHES ALWAYS DOODLE.
- BITCHES ALWAYS DO DOWNWARD DOG WHEN YOU’RE LEAST EXPECTING IT.
- BITCHES ALWAYS DO VEX ME MOST BITTERLY, AYE ME!*
- BITCHES ALWAYS DO IT BETTER IN FRANCE.**
- BITCHES ALWAYS DO THAT ARTFULLY-DISHEVELED-HAIR THING; YOU KNOW, A MESSY UPDO WITH A FEW LOOSE TENDRILS: VERY FETCHING.
* One for the early modernists
**One for the dix-huitièmistes
A number of questions also arose:
- Am I the only person here who thinks this is a weird choice of T-shirt to wear to a unisex gym?
- Are my feelings of intuitive contempt for the wearer of this T-shirt justified?
- What could I possibly say to him that would be a suitably scathing riposte?
Question 1 I do not know the answer to.
Bizarrely, I got some ideas about the second question from an article I was reading while doing research. The article, by Kendall Walton, is called “Thoughtwriting in Poetry and Music.” (See New Literary History, 2011, 42: 455–476). Walton’s basic thesis is that certain forms of writing function as what he calls “thoughtwriting,” meaning that when a performer reads, sings, or recites the words, they view themselves, not as voicing the thoughts of a character or author, but as appropriating the words in order to express their own thoughts. Walton’s essay ends by discussing T-shirt and bumper-sticker slogans. He says: “The composer of such slogans can hardly have anything in mind but their being used, on automobile bumpers and T-shirts, to express thoughts of the driver or the wearer. The composer may or may not agree with the sentiments of the slogans he produces.”
The BITCHES ALWAYS DO T-shirt is an interesting case to consider with Walton’s thesis in mind. My own reaction to the T-shirt wearer, affirms, I think, Walton’s theory. It did not occur to me that the T-shirt wearer had designed the T-shirt himself (although he certainly could have done); instead I supposed that he had purchased this T-shirt, and by the act of wearing it was using the T-shirt designer’s words to express his own thoughts.
At the same time, the highly enigmatic nature of the phrase BITCHES ALWAYS DO distinguishes it from the slogans that Walton discusses, like “Buy Local,” or “Support Our Troops, Bring Them Home.” The weird (and, I’m almost tempted to say, cool) thing about BITCHES ALWAYS DO is that it affronts and perplexes at the same time. But, as Walton suggests, even when you may be in doubt as to what words on a T-shirt actually mean, you can still feel certain that it is the wearer of the T-shirt who “means something [my emphasis] by them” (467). And that explains why, dear readers, I became extremely proccupied with imagining the conversations that might unfold between the T-shirt-wearing man and the duck-rabbit: I took “BITCHES ALWAYS DO” to be an (ambiguous) assertion to which I wished to reply. Indeed, I became so absorbed in imagining these conversations that I proceeded to spend more time using (and inspecting) the weight-lifting machines than I think I have ever done before.
For example (and these are to be taken as the answers I generated in response to to my own Question 3, above):
DUCK-RABBIT: Ahem, excuse me.
T-SHIRT-WEARER: Uhh, are you talking to me?
DUCK-RABBIT: You’re darn right I am because BITCHES ALWAYS DO … am I right?
T-SHIRT-WEARER: I don’t follow.
DUCK-RABBIT: Well, I’m a bitch, aren’t I (well, technically I’m a drake-doe, but we needn’t get into that)?
DUCK-RABBIT: Well, if I am a bitch, and I’m talking to you and bitches always do, then the very fact that I’m talking to you must mean that talking must be the thing bitches always do. Am I right?
T-SHIRT-WEARER: [Glancing around and seemingly addressing this question to the gym at large]: Who is this fucking bitch?
DUCK-RABBIT: Is that a rhetorical question?
T-SHIRT-WEARER: Has anyone ever told you you’re fucking ugly?
DUCK-RABBIT: That’s fucking ugly bitch to you, and with that I’ll bid you Good Day, Sir.
DUCK-RABBIT: Wow, that is such a coincidence!
DUCK-RABBIT: Yeah, I was just observing that it’s such a funny coincidence, because I was going to wear my BITCHES ALWAYS DO T-shirt to the gym today, but it’s in the wash. But anyway, I was just thinking, right before I saw you, you know, they just goddamn do, don’t they, every single bloody time?
T-SHIRT-WEARER: Do they?
DUCK-RABBIT: Course they do! Says so right there, doesn’t it? You know how it goes. Just when one comes along and you thing she’s different and then, Bam! She goes ahead and does, just like all the others. [Shakes head in amused disbelief and smiles]
T-SHIRT-WEARER: [Scratching head] Actually, I have no idea what you’re talking about, love. What is it that who does?
DUCK-RABBIT: [Leaning in conspiratorially] Now that would be telling, wouldn’t it! Let’s just keep it between ourselves, shall we? Mum’s the word! [Starts backing away] Say no more!
The final stage was to imagine the T-shirts I would make to wear next time to the gym in hopes that I would encounter the same man wearing the same T-shirt. Instead of fighting fire with fire, as the duck encouraged (the duck was keen on out-vulgarizing the T-shirt-wearer, and I’m afraid I’ve seen fit to censor his suggestions) I went with the rabbit, who advised a completely opposite route, including the following:
- HAS YOUR MOTHER SEEN THAT T-SHIRT?
- I’M EXTREMELY DISAPPOINTED IN YOU.
- VERBS ALWAYS DO.
Of course, the Duck-Rabbit has not actually made any of these T-shirts. And all the above exchanges with the man with the T-shirt are obviously entirely imaginary. L’esprit de l’elliptical trainer and all that. Instead, the duck-rabbit pumped some iron and left feeling rather disaffected with the gym. Perhaps, next time the duck-rabbit needs some exercise, and if the Duck agrees to teach the Rabbit how to swim (and repress his masculinity for the morning), they’ll use the Ladies’ Ponds instead.