Commentary Magazine


The Lateness Joke

Hour Late

Morris Birnbaum has worked behind the counter selling buttons and zippers at Katz Luxury Notions for 27 years. He has never missed a day of work. He has never taken more than 30 minutes for lunch. He has never asked to leave a moment early. And he has never arrived late.

Then comes a morning in February. Usually when Katz arrives, Birnbaum is standing in the doorway, waiting for him. But this morning, no Birnbaum. Katz goes in, turns on the lights, puts the key in the cash register. No Birnbaum. At 9, he flips the sign from Closed to Open. One of his regulars comes in. “Where’s Birnbaum?” he says. Katz shakes his head.

Finally, at 10, Birnbaum staggers through the door. His jacket is torn. His face is bloody. He has a giant black-and-blue mark on his forehead.

“What happened to you?” Katz asks.

“I was coming up from the subway at 40th Street,” Birnbaum says. “A guy with a suitcase knocked into me. I fell down the stairs. I hit some people while I was falling. A lady broke her leg. A man was knocked unconscious. The cops had to come. Also the medics.”

Katz says, “So this took an hour?”




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