What's Old? A Visit With Pierre Cliche

Paul Greenberg

1/9/2008 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

With the coming of a new year, it was time to refurbish my standard repertoire of cliches. As you may have noticed, I try to keep an ample supply on hand. Which requires replenishing the old bromides with entirely new ones every year. The chore's got to be done every year - regular as, yes, clockwork.

The prizes of my collection are those instant cliches that sound old the first time they're uttered. For there's nothing like staying up to dated. That's why I'm always on the lookout for phrases that sound right as rain, fit as a fiddle, smooth as a baby's bottom.

You get the tired idea. And who better to advise me in this matter than the Old Master, the Gray Eminence, the Whited Sepulchre, Pierre Cliche himself.

I try to visit M. Cliche every year for a new supply of old platitudes, but though his work seems everywhere - especially in an election year - he himself isn't easy to track down. He tends to blend into the background once he's reduced the art of conversation to a solemn exchange of old saws.

A determined recluse, Pierre seeks no credit for his solemn truisms. Indeed, man of taste that he is, he would deny authorship if he could. But he takes on the, yes, awesome job of supplying me with a carload of cliches lest I trip up and say something original. Can't have that. Too risky.

As the new year, yes, dawned, I went looking for the man whose very name is a cliche. He resides just where you'd expect - in an ordinary bungalow in a nondescript neighborhood of a small suburb of a standard statistical metropolitan area somewhere in the blank-as-snow Midwest, probably Iowa. He lives the humdrum life of your standard stoolie in a federal Witness Protection Program, lest editors driven beyond distraction by cliches hunt him down and put -30- to his incorrigible career.

It took a while to locate unlucky Pierre. The tip-off was the long row of vans outside his forgettable little house, every one of them full-to-bursting with last year's well-used platitudes. Inside the house, back in a den crowded with his favorite banalities, he was busy plying - what else? - his trade.

The man works even and especially on holidays, weekends and during political campaigns. There's not a speech given, toast delivered, anniversary observed, greeting exchanged ("Cold enough for ya?") that does not bear his ineradicable mark.

Certainly no presidential primary or national nominating convention is complete without M. Cliche's many contributions, for he has an extraordinary grasp of the excruciatingly ordinary, as the transcript of our conversation makes clear:

"Good morning, Monsieur Cliche, you look well this new year."

"Sound as a dollar."

"Oh, dear. Sorry to hear that. But your prose remains as prosaic as ever. Your phrases must be the most widely disseminated in our cultural, if you'll pardon my French, milieu. We are all indebted to you."

"Don't mention it. Please don't mention it. To anyone."

"I'm here to get your take on this year's presidential race. Which candidate do you favor?"

"Whichever one will prove to be a change agent."

"Which reminds me: What did the caucus-goers in Iowa vote for?"

"Change."

"What did that do to the presidential race?"

"It upended it."

"In light of the results from Iowa, who are you betting on to win the presidential nomination of their respective parties?"

"All bets are off."

"So what kind of presidential candidate are you looking for?"

"Someone who'll be ready for the job from Day One."

"That sounds familiar."

"Thank you. It's an oldie but a goodie."

"What has her poor showing in Iowa done to Hillary Clinton's presidential hopes?"

"She's down but not out."

"What does she hope to become in New Hampshire?

"The Comeback Kid."

"Is there anything new these days in the cliche business?''

"Nope. The more things changeŠ"

"The more they stay the same?"

"That's the bottom line."

"But on balance, how do these times shape up?"

"It's the best of times, it's the worst of times."

"Yeah, Charlie Dickens spoke for the ages, all right, any of them. But what will cliches be like in the future?''

"First and foremost, they'll be bigger and better."

"Thank you, sir, but as much as I've enjoyed thisŠ"

"Stroll down memory lane?"

"Yes, that's the exact phrase I wasn't looking for. But my question was about the future, not the past. What can you tell me about it?"

"It lies ahead."

"How should we meet it?"

"We must hope for the best but be prepared for the worst."

"Yes, but what will the new year bring?"

"Only time can tell."

"Thanks. That would make a great conclusion, so to speak, for a column. So safe."

"On the other hand"

"One can never tell?"

"That's it. You're catching on. It's simple once you get the hang of it. Just put your mind in idle and let it drift. Then the cliches never stop coming. It's thinking that's the (clear and present) danger to cliche-making. Don't worry, be happy. A cliche a day keeps thought away."

"Thanks for your time. It's been a (familiar) pleasure interviewing you.''

"My pleasure entirely. Have a good day. Catch you later," said M. Cliche, smiling like the, yes, proverbial Cheshire Cat.