Friday, February 6, 2009

Flowers For Neanderthals

Robert Boyer was having a interesting day today.  I came home while he was eating some Chex mix and watching golf.  After waiting to see that he had finished his mouthful of food (a slow process as he comes from the HR Kellogg generation of chewing your food for health!) I quickly slung a question at him about something or other I can't remember, and by and by, between mouthfuls, he asked me, "What's your mothers maiden name?"  
"What did you say," I said to him, "what's my mothers maiden name?" 
"Yeah, that's what the bank always asks, 'What's your mothers maiden name?'" said Robert.
"Oh," I said, "Yeah that bank always asks me that, and score! my Mom's maiden name is, I think, an Ellis Island erratic that exists nowhere in the world but Northern Indiana, and Montana."
"And what is it then?" said Robert.
"Wilondek," I said, "supposedly Americanized Polish.  What was your Mom's maiden name?"
"Lanquist," said Robert.
"Wow," I practically yelled, "was she buxom."
"My Mother?"  asked Robert.
"Ah, I guess thats none of my business." I said.
My thinking was improving, his total lack of response seemed to indicate.

Pearl Lanquist.  Man, what a great Mom.  Her name was Swedish (seemed obvious to me, hence the question about her chest... truth in jest, and all that, you know---) but she was, in fact, only half.  Her Father was Swedish, which you have already surmised, but her Mother Emma, her Mom, was full blooded, roaring, Pennsylvania Dutch.  What a woman.  One of those about whom you'd say "She was a hard woman, but she had to be, for she had a hard life."  Hmm...  Emma's husband, who's name Robert could not remember, (maybe John, maybe Luke, Mark seems a possibility, but not Igor) was a factory worker who found drinking to be exceedingly easy on the nerves, and his wife not so much.  
"Did Emma's husband drink his paychecks away, "I asked Robert.
"It's very likely, " said Robert, "that Emma was one of the few women to be found waiting on Friday outside the factory to collect the money my Grandfather made.
"So you think she got it before the bar," I asked.
"Well, " said Robert, "my Grandfather didn't speak much English, even at the end of his life, but he always said he wished she wouldn't take his money AND his drinking money on Fridays."
"Now, that's what I call a drinking problem everyone should have," I said.

Cheerio Emma.  Cheerio.


I can't be certain, but I have always believed due to the striking similarity between the words: "bed", "bedrock", and "Bedford", that Bedford Indiana was named for the Bedrock it shares with Bloomington, and the Pentagon.  The limestone.  And I can't be certain, but I have always believed due to the striking similarity between the concept of:  an "ectomorph", and a "typical Bedfordian" that people from Bedford were unnaturally selected through the history of that town for big strong bodies, the better to lift and move, manipulate and monetize, limestone.  God bless them, of course.  Nobody ever mistook me for a guy who can really fill up a pair of jeans (I'm thinking of a friend cooing over a gentleman to me.  I was wondering should I nod, "yes, he does fill the jeans, he really fills the jeans.  Like for example, how I do not.) These Bedfordians, however, their cups overfloweth.  God bless 'em.  

Last night, I was walking back from the school after a session of crooning at the windows and radiator, with feeling.  And perhaps a kind of gentle and other-worldly compassion sprang in my heart from my having been so near to the spirits that come so close to a singer at those shorn places in the universe where we sing.  So, when I entered the Village Pantry, while this compassion could not protect the third shift Bedfordian working that night from my basic prejudice, a reckoning awaited us both when I performed a classic Andy dum dum in the presence of said employee.  He was giving me my change, for a package of pink, sugarless, bubble gum and his palm brushed my fingers and I felt something discordant with my prejudice upon his skin and so, naturally enough, began with the personal questions.
"Say, buddy, do you work two jobs?" I asked.
Giving me the, what----me? are you crazy? I'm working at a VP for Chrissake, look, the Bedfordian, aligned his eyes in a somewhat more symmetrical fashion, and focused the customer fresh on his brain.  Once the image and words were more "talky" than "silent film" the Bedfordian seemed almost charmed by the question, and I found his smile somewhat reassuring.  Gradually he seemed to barely consent that, "This is sorta my job."
"Well, " I ventured, "I was just, kinda' wonderin' if you weren't framin' houses in your spare time.  You see, when you gave me my change, I noticed your palm was pretty calloused."
The Bedordian looked really pissed.  He looked at me briefly, then down at his hand, then looked back up at me drawing his fingers into.... his palm, and smiling.
"I worked five years in the stone yards, Oolitic," said the Bedfordian.
"Look on the bright side dude, even Neaderthals buried their dead with flowers!" I said (I would never.)
"Oolitic, yeah, that's close to here. Down West on 17th, way out," I said.
"Yeah," he smiled again. Seeming perfectly normal.
Right about then I began to realize I was feeling pretty crummy about my prejudices.

I stopped then and stood and talked to the guy, wondering, as he showed me pictures of why he wasn't in school (his kids), why I am so willing to classify poor white folks from the hinterlands, without fear of some serious Karmic disturbances.  I guess I just never really have believed my own talk about the guaranteed wickedness of classifying an entire community (thousands really) all over the face of the country and earth, as fools beneath my contempt, born funny lookin': dumb.  Don't get me wrong, in polite company, like Quakers, or Unitarian sewing groups, you probably couldn't go on about about the stupid rednecks for too long (unless a member of that group had recently been on the local news doing something that gets on an evening broadcast).  But, really, in most circumstances a kid from a redneck family is going to grow up defiant, or ashamed.  And that's do to the choices at our spiritual buffet on offer:  we call you dumb as you came from, and you agree, or you are our object of pity, our enemy.  Or something like that.  While talking with the admittedly not strikingly self assured, composed, articulate, and aggressively ambitious guy at the VP, I couldn't help but shudder at how convulsed with the opposite of compassion I have felt toward the man until his palm scratched the nerves in my hand while giving me change.  How that led to conversation, a kind of mutual sympathy, laying down of arms, and finally real insight into each other is a mystery to me.  The impact of that not happening more between me and others, between all of us who imagine ourselves separated by abstractions, instead of united by our needs and the courage of our humanity, is surely staggering.  Big enough to bring on down, a Bedfordian to... come to think of it, my level.

Andy Coffey

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