Billy Collins (BC) and Nancy Cobb (NC)
BC: My dad was subversively funny. He liked jokes, he had a whole Rolodex of one-liners for every occasion. And he was a practical joker as well, he was a sadistic and methodical practical joker. There was a man in his office that he didn’t like, and this was back in the days when all men wore hats, wore fedora hats. And one day this guy came in having bought a new hat and he was showing it off, and in my father’s view, making the usual ass of himself. So that afternoon my father snuck into the cloak room, removed the new hat, went down to the street and into the hat store and bought two identical hats and one was an eighth of a size bigger and one was an eighth of a size smaller, and for probably a month or so he switched hats on this man, so that one day the hat would be up on this man’s head just a little bit and the next day it would be down around his ears just slightly, and then I know that one week he put the real hat in for four days and then on Friday he put the little one in. And of course the guy thought his head was shrinking and expanding.
NC: And he never told him?
BC: He never told him, no. At some point much later, I wrote this poem, called The Death of a Hat, and it’s the closest thing I’ve written to an eulogy for my father:
The death of a hat. Once every man wore a hat, in the ashen newsreels, the avenues of cities are broad rivers flowing with hats. The ballpark swelled with thousands of straw hats, brims and bands, rows of men, smoking and cheering in shirtsleeves. Hats were the law, they went without saying. You noticed a man in a crowd without a hat. You bought them from Adams or Dobbs who branded your initials in gold on the inside band. Trollies crisscrossed the city, steamships sailed in and out of the harbor, men with hats gathered on the docks. There was a person to block your hat and a hat-check girl to mind it while you had a drink or ate a steak with peas and a baked potato. In your office, stood a hat rack. The day war was declared, everyone was wearing a hat, and they were wearing hats when a ship, loaded with men and women sank in the icy sea. My father wore one to work everyday and returned home carrying the evening paper, the winter chill radiating from his overcoat. But today we go bare-headed into the winter streets, stand hatless on frozen platforms. Today the mailboxes on the roadside, and the spruce trees behind the house wear cold, white hats of snow. Mice scurry from the stone walls at night in their thin fur hats to eat the birdseed that has spilled. And now my father, after a life of work wears a hat of earth, and on top of that hat, a lighter one, of cloud and sky, a hat of wind.