Author Archives: Courtney Berck

“You look like an Indian that just struck oil.”

“It means that… if somebody says it to you, it means that you have recently come into some type of money. And you have spent it all on clothing. You’re all fussed up.  You have bought a lot of expensive clothing and you are wearing it.  It’s like you’re wearing your money.”

The informant heard this from her father.  He used to always say it when she and her sister would get dressed up to go out for something.  He thought it was funny.  The informant said, “He was making fun of you dressing up.  He didn’t like to get dressed up so he would put ‘dressing up’ down.”

The informant said she would only ever say the proverb around her immediate family because she thinks that it is racist, but the informant remembers her father saying it as a pleasant memory.  As a child, she did not understand the “racist implications,” and she thought it was funny because he was joking around and happy, and he didn’t do that all that often.

I have never heard this proverb before probably for the same reason that my informant does not like to repeat it.  I have heard proverbs that spread a similar message that usually discourage people from showing their wealth to others.

Beware the Parking Garage

“Whenever your car has been parked and you haven’t been right next to it. Before you get closed to your car, you need to kneel down and look under the car to make sure there is no one underneath it.”

The informant interrupted herself saying:

“That does sound crazy doesn’t it. (laughs) But it isn’t crazy.  I really believe it.  I think its true”

The informant continued.

“You do this because there have been cases of people hiding under people’s cars, slashing their Achilles tendon with a knife and then robbing them or sometimes doing harm like raping them or grand theft auto. And you have to be especially careful as a woman.”

The informant learned this from a friend who had heard of real cases in Memphis, TN.  She asserted the truth of her friend because “she’s a real attorney.”  Her friend had told her that it happened in enclosed parking or high rise parking, not so much out in the open.  The informant said that she would tell this to my daughters and anyone really going into an underground parking structure with their car.  They really need to be careful.   “I always park in an open area because it’s harder to hide in an open area.  I don’t want anything to happen to anyone but especially my daughters.  I find women more vulnerable than men.”

I think the legend, regardless of how true it may be, arose from people’s fear of being trapped alone and defenseless in a parking structure.  Under the car is dark just like under a bed.  This fear of someone hiding under a car is the grown up version of fearing monsters under the bed.

“You never know what goes on behind closed doors.”

The informant learned the proverb from her mother.

“It means that when you meet people you never know what their real life is like at home when nobody’s watching.  It stuck with me because as I’ve grown older, I realize how true it is for so many people. I mean you read the papers and see these horrible things happening to children. Sexual and physical abuse and verbal abuse.  People hiding these things. And I think she had that in her family. She had an abusive father.  It was her own very quiet way of telling me, [the proverb]. She was saying ‘be understanding about other people when they may not be acting perfectly because you don’t know about their lives.’  Have empathy.  I think that’s what she was trying to say.  Even if their not perfectly nice, maybe they are coming from a place that they need more understand than the average person.”

The informant said that she would tell this to her children when they had issues with others in school.  Sometimes she would see signs of something awry in their lives that would make the child act out.  The informant wanted her children to be compassionate like her mother had taught her to be.

Annotation: Denise Richards utilizes a variation of the proverb commenting on the difficulties in her life with Charlie Sheen in an interview with Fox 411:

McGevna, Alison. “EXCLUSIVE: Denise Richards: ‘No One Knows What Goes On Behind Closed Doors'” Fox News. FOX News Network, 10 Feb. 2011. Web. 21 Mar. 2013. <>.

Musical Joke

Q: What’s the difference between a piano and a fish?

A: You can’t tuna(tune a) fish.

The informant recently learned the joke from one of the kids from the musical that she was in.  The joke teller plays piano and is very musical.  The informant found the joke amusing at first, but she said that as he kept telling it over and over it became annoying.  She had heard the joke recently, but she enjoyed telling me about the teller of the joke more than the joke itself.  The boy telling the joke was one of the younger members of the cast, and the informant assumes that he was trying to become part of the group though he was trying a little too hard.  I think the joke is more cute than funny, and mostly because of the description of the boy that went along with it.

Annotation: The National Aquarium in DC collected jokes about fish and this one was listed on their website:

“Fun Fish Jokes from the National Aquarium’s Facebook Fans.” National Aquarium WATERblog. National Aquarium, 11 July 2011. Web. 21 Mar. 2013. <>.

Fist Pump Farewell

“I remember when I was in middle school.  Whenever my dad would leave for work.  He would leave for work before I went to school so I would be eating breakfast.  He would get ready and put on his shoes, and then he would stop just before he left and say ‘Fighting.’ (The informant says the word in a low tone as pumps his fist in a forward motion.)”

The informant believes that his dad picked the gesture up in the army.  The fist pump motion is paired with a reverberating and deep utterance of the word “fighting” in a Korean accent.  (I was unaware what word he was saying at first because of the heavy accent until the informant explained.)  The informant said it was a big moment when he finally got the resonance of it, a sort of rite of passage.  His voice was finally low enough to make the sound like his father.

Nowadays, whenever he has a bad day, his mother will say it to him over the phone to cheer him up.  I asked if he thought he would continue the tradition with his children, and he said that he was unsure.  “I could imagine if I had this really spunky three year old and I was looking for something new for us to do.”  He said that he would love if  his parents, particularly his dad would do it with his kids, and maybe he would join in, but maybe it would just be a tradition for his dad and his children.

The word and gesture does not really mean anything, but the practice and performance of the ritual is what stuck with the informant.  It is a tradition with his dad that is a little silly, but it became a regular part of his day.  I think the custom is a good way to keep the connection between the informant and his family; the gesture has lost its original meaning, but now it holds more importance and remains in his memory.

Taxi Girl Story

There’s a beautiful girl standing on a street corner.  It’s a dark night.  She calls a taxi.  The taxi driver says he will drive her wherever she needs to go.  He thinks that she is so beautiful so he will do his best.  He asks her where she needs to go and she says the house at the top of the hill.   Its really dark.  He tries to sneak glances at her  in the rear view mirror.  First time, he didn’t see her in rearview mirror.  Then at the red light he turns around and she is there.  He makes up an excuse that he was checking something in the back.  He tries again and doesn’t see her in the rearview mirror but does when he turns around.  It happens a third time.  He gets spooked thinking she might be a vampire or a ghost.  Finally, they get to the destination, and he turns around, and she has a bloody nose.  It is because she picked her nose to hard and gave herself a bloody nose.  Each time he didn’t see her in the mirror was because she was ducking to casually pick her nose in the back of the taxi.

The informant does not remember who exactly told it to him, but he thinks it might be a friend from church who had taught him other strange songs and stories.  As he was telling me the story, he said he wanted to go down to his apartment and tell his roommates.  The story isn’t something that he tells a lot, but he enjoys it enough to tell it to his friends when he remembers.

The story has certain plot elements typically associated with marchen and legends like the rule of three, but it adds the surprise humor element instead of the scary ghost story that the listener expects.  In this way, it keeps the attention of the listener without spoiling the ending.  I found the story a bit perplexing because it seemed  to have little pay off for the large amount of explanation in the beginning, but I think that the story finds a certain charming aspect in the telling of it.

Polar Bear Underwear Song

“One day someone pooped in his underwear,

couldn’t find another pair, had to wear the dirty pair.

Five days later, eaten by a polar bear,

the next day the polar bear died.”

Polar Bear Underwear Song

The informant learned this from his friend, “a church friend actually.  I think I was maybe in the 5th grade.”  He had forgotten the song, and only recently remembered it when his older sister sang it to him on their road trip together.

He likes the song because it is so nonsensical.  There is no moral to the story.  It’s just funny.  “It rhymes and its got poop in it.  I just realized.  It has a rhyme and to add to the nonsensicalness of it, the last line doesn’t rhyme.  (Laughing) Where did the polar bear come from and why did he die?  Oh my gosh.”  He really enjoys the song even though he is older now.  Sometimes the song pops into his head, but he doesn’t ever really sing it for a particular purpose or to make people laugh.

The song is just fun and silly, but it also covers the taboo of bodily functions.  The song allows them to have a tabooistic discourse even in place as sanctimonious as church.  Children perhaps use the song to talk about “gross things” in a fun way.  With songs, politeness is not necessary all the time.  I like the little song, and I know the kids in my family would really enjoy it as well.

Annotation: In a collection of children’s songs, there is a variation of this:

Five days later she couldn’t find her underwear
Couldn’t find her underwear, couldn’t find her underwear
Ten days later she was eaten by a polar bear
That was the end of her!

G., Marissa. “Children’s Songs Part Three.” N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2013. <>.

The Fist Rule

“Dad always told me, and his dad told his sisters that ‘if you can’t fit a fist in your jeans, they are too tight.’  I forget what it was about the top.  It was something funny.  It was a rule of thumb.  If they couldn’t put their fists in their pockets then they couldn’t go out.”

The informant thinks the rule is silly, but her personal style has been very impacted by the saying.  “Why do you think I wear such baggy clothing?”  She remembers her father telling her to go change, and she would put on the polar opposite (baggy sweatpants).  The informant doesn’t really seem to have minded the rule, but she is more open now to wearing tighter clothing than she was allowed to before.

Proverbs and little phrases like the one above get more contextualized in people’s personal lives more than they may realize.  Though the informant recognized that she wore baggier clothing for her father’s approval at first, she later became more attracted to that type of clothing without thinking about the proverb.  Folklore has a large though sometimes invisible influence on all aspects of life.


Christmas Pajamas

“My mom always lied to me and said Santa Claus wouldn’t come unless I wore my Christmas pajamas.  She made my brother do it too.  My Christmas pajamas consisted of a flannel nightgown with white lace around the collar with little bells on it, and it doesn’t get that cold in California so we would be sweating in it.  I would wake up in the morning and my cheeks were all flushed.  Mom would take pictures of us sweating, and I had a rash from the stupid lace.  It’s so dumb.  I’m definitely not doing that to my kids.”

The informant was not aware until later in life that her grandmother had done the same thing to her mother.  She thinks that her mother made her do it because they looked cute in Christmas pajamas, and “anything to dress to theme, my mom was all over.”  The informant does not want to continue the tradition because of the discomfort that she had to go through for all those years.

Some rituals and traditions seem to be for the parents more than the children.  Perhaps one day, she will make her kids dress in Christmas pajamas, but without kids of her own, the infliction of uncomfortable pajamas with the threat of no Santa seems cruel.

Belmont Ghost Legend

At Belmont University, in the 1960s out in front of Wright Hall (the girls side of building that I lived in), there’s a small field out in front where you can have a picnic.  It was kind of like a quad.  One night, a girl was coming home alone, and it was dark.  She was a resident of Wright though they don’t remember what floor or room she lived in.  These two guys came up to her.  One approached her from the front to make her back up, and the other shot her.  It was the only confirmed violence on campus.  It happened around December or November, during finals time.  The girl who had been killed was very studious.

The whole legend was that around that time you would see the girl wandering through the halls.  She would come up behind you and poke you or do something to you because she had been devoting herself to school and was taken away.

“One night, my roommate and I were in our room on the third floor.  My roommate and I were asleep probably around …I tell the time later.  I was laying down and my eyes burst open.  I had felt something in my ear like heard someone say hey. I felt something like breath in my ear.  I checked if the air was on. (waves hands around showing what she did)  Then I got up and checked.  There was no air conditioning, and my roommate was dead to the world, snoring.  She checked in the hall and saw no one.  It was about  2 in the morning.”

Her roommate had experienced something similar, but they didn’t remember the legend until they were talking.  They realized it had happened right around the time finals were starting.

“It was weird. I told it to my mom and my grandma.  I was literally sitting on the edge of the bed so confused.  I thought it was a waking dream at first then I remembered I felt breath, like someone blowing in your ear.”

The informant heard the legend on a campus tour when the tour guide was showing them the dorm that they would be living in.  She thought, “Great, we are going to be living in a murder house.”  The informant believes that the legend is told half to scare people who are easy to scare, but it is also just one of the ten stories that have really stuck with the campus through the years.

The informant’s story is a good example of a memorate.  She had heard the legend previously so when the experience happened she connected the dots.  The informant  believes the legend more than before she had had the experience because she formed a personal connection with it.  Perhaps if she had never heard the legend, the breath in her ear would still be a mystery.  The legend also seems like a cautionary tale, telling students to be aware of their surroundings so that they do not end up like the girl who was murdered.