It was an early warm day and Maury and I were sitting on a patio having a beverage (one each, actually). I had just answered a question for Maury when I heard a familiar British accent say, “Who said urban?”
It was Marcus Brattle, my mentee, now 16 years old and devoted as ever to hip-hop. He had rolled up on a skateboard, no mean feat with his pants around his ankles.
“Well,” I said, looking from young Marcus to the rather more seasoned Maury, “here is a study in the difference a letter can make.” I paused for effect. I gestured to Marcus. “Urban.” I turned to Maury. “Urbane.”
“We’re all urban,” Maury pointed out. “We all live in the city.”
“True,” I said, “and while I love the fresh air of the country and a nice walk among the trees, I don’t mind not having to say rural all the time. The same ‘rrr’ as in urban but with more of the same. I like the nice ‘bun’ of urban. But –” I turned again towards Marcus – “Marcus here likes what is often called urban music. Even though it is much beloved of suburban youths.”
“I’m not suburban,” Marcus said.
“True dat,” I said. “I would have to say Maury’s tastes are more urbane, though. Jazz and classical. Everything smoother. Just as urbane is urban with an e, to be urbane is to be urban with ease.”
“I might say,” Maury said, “that urbane is to urban as humane is to human. The e word is characteristic of those most positive qualities associated with the non-e word.”
“And like humane from human, urbane was originally just an alternative version of urban,” I said. “And of course they’re all from Latin.”
“Speaking of smooth,” Marcus said, “what are you drinking?”
We raised our glasses in unison and said, “Bourbon.”
“Not bourbane?” Marcus smirked a little at his own witticism. “And why are you sitting outside?”
“Because we can,” Maury said.
“Although I would be happy away from the smoke,” I said, glancing towards its source at a nearby table. “Say, do you know who instituted the world’s first smoking ban?”
Semi-expectant blank looks from both other parties.
“Pope Urban VII,” I said. “He threatened to excommunicate anyone who took tobacco in a church or on its porch, whether by chewing, sniffing, or smoking.”
“Didn’t his papacy last only 13 days?” said Maury.
“True,” I said. “Must have been the tobacco lobby.”
“So why were you talking about urban anyway?” asked Marcus.
Maury and I looked at each other for a moment, brows furrowed. I blinked a couple of times. Then Maury said, “Japan.”
“Ah, yes,” I said.
“I guess Japan is urban,” Marcus said, “but so is China, so is…”
“Well, and Japan is especially urban in China,” I said.
“What?” Marcus gave me a please-make-sense look.
“Mandarin for ‘Japan’ is pronounced pretty much exactly like urban,” I said. “That’s what I was saying.”
Marcus raised one eyebrow. “I’m certain that with that tidbit of information I am well on my way to becoming more urbane.” He dropped his skateboard on the ground, swatted my hat off my head and sailed off.
“Ur-bane of my existence,” I said, and got up to grab my urban turban.