formative years

During the four years I spent in high school, I worked at a grocery/feed store in the small town I lived in. Tuesdays and Thursdays after school, every Saturday and every other Sunday. I credit working there and bartending as two major factors in my becoming a writer. Because when you meet people who are such characters, you start spinning narratives about who they are. How they are. Why they are.

One of my favorite people to work with was a Justice of the Peace named Tommy who was probably five or 10 years older than my parents. We typically worked together on Sundays, and I always looked forward to our shift. Because he was funny as hell. The 12-year-old-boy sense of humor that still strongly resides inside my brain was immensely entertained by this guy. And he enjoyed having a willing, giggling audience.

He looked like a good ole boy and I was the same liberal asshole I am now, so we cut quite a figure. Here’s a picture of him from later years.

he's the one on the tractor

he’s the one on the tractor

I snagged this photo from a facebook event listing for a scholarship fundraiser a few years back held in his honor. Glad to know his presence is still being felt. I thought of him tonight because this nonsense little ditty that he used to recite popped into my brain. There are quite a few variations on the interwebs, but this is how I remember him telling it.

I see, said the blind man to the deaf woman
over the disconnected telephone line
with her wooden leg hanging out the window
in the rain saying, “I feel! I feel!”

Funny the things you remember about people. There was an old lady with gray hair who wore a black wig that was more like a hat than a wig, her gray hair curling up around the sides. I’d carry her groceries to the car and she’d make me place them on the floorboard so I didn’t crush the invisible person on the seat. There was the time my boss told me his brother Tiny was coming for a visit. Out in the country, nicknames often are the opposite of the person they describe, so I assumed Tiny would be tall and 300 pounds. Nope. He was a little person. And he had the name TINY stamped on the back of his wee little belt. The people who ran the meat market would occasionally get a pig’s head, which they would dress up with a hat, glasses and scarf. I tried to stay away from the meat counter as much as possible, but there were many evenings I had to reach into a big jar to grab someone a pickled pig’s foot that I would wrap in wax paper. There were a few dirty old men who liked to take a gander at my goods when I bent over to bag their groceries, so my father suggested I write “What the fuck are you looking at?” upside down in my cleavage. There was a guy with an extra finger, only it didn’t have any bones. It was like a deflated, flesh-colored balloon just hanging off the side of his hand. Every time I’d go to give him his change, he’d flip his hand over and the boneless finger would flop around. There was a rich guy from Houston who wore short white shorts and liked to “stretch” while he was at the store. Usually when it was just high school girls working the counter. Because there’s nothing high school girls like more than a 40-something year old dad bending over and almost touching his toes.

Not everyone who walked in the store was a character, but the characters are the ones I still remember 25 years later. So, in the grand scheme of things, I’d rather someone remember me for my stupid jokes (or extra finger) than not at all. Here’s another of Tommy’s favorites:

Him: I had to defend you the other day.
Me: Really? Why?
Him: Someone said you smelled bad, and I said, “Like shit she does.”

19 thoughts on “formative years

  1. Character goes a long way in this life. Most of my best memories come from people with character.

  2. You make me laugh out loud…not the LOL kind, the real, honest to god giggling and snorting kind. My kitty Tookie wondered what the hell I was laughing, and I looked her straight in they eye and said, ‘It’s Crystal, again’. She smiled a knowing smile at me, and chuckled. Thanks for giving me a great snapshot of a day in your earlier life…now those characters are gonna be stuck in my mind for the next 25 years.

  3. OMG….I might have turned into one of those dirty old men taking a gander at the checkout line girls……
    This made me laugh Crystal! Thanks for posting!!
    Jim

  4. Man I just spent the whole day at the Daytona Beach VA and it was kinda like your story, only infused with a scattering of pathos and prosthetics and it was happening in the here and now, whatever that is…I hope Jim Bangs ain’t stretching around in his spandex coach shorts…I’ll just avert my eyes. You do a lot of that in backwater Texas feed stores and VA clinics in our darlin’ war-like America. But mostly we sit around waiting and cracking wise over the CNN on the pacifying TV monitors scattered all over the place. Recent upticks in the suicide rates of Vietnam Vets, now entering their nether years and saying fuck it all, I guess, means that the first and last words I hear from the nurses and doctors is “have you had thoughts today about harming yourself or others?” and I of course say “fuck yeah! Don’t you?” Then I hurry up and follow that with “I just rode my bicycle 24 miles at predawn and almost got run off the road three times and got an eviction notice two days ago and I wasn’t a combat vet, so it doesn’t count, does it?”

    The nurse puts down her pen and says, “Tim Joe. You really don’t want to get Baker acted, trust me.”

    And I do. I trust her. I say “I’m just goofing, but really, who ain’t half mad with frustration and anger these days? I think I’m coping pretty good.” I saw her eyes welling up and I could kick myself; hell, maybe I can talk them into attaching a prosthetic device that kicks me in the ass every time I get started like this. They probably make one.

    She turns to me and says, talking fast and desperately, soto voce (as the desperate are known to do): “I’ve got a house in Michigan in foreclosure and my husband is in treatment for colon cancer and he is going to die and last week I got a DUI and when they find out, I’ll lose my job.”

    “I’m the first one you told?”

    “He’s in so much pain I don’t want to make it worse. And I love this job.”

    Man. We never got the memo, did we? Those Power Rangers from the Planet Liverpool came through these parts so many years ago, put it on the plate and served it up: All we need is love, when I’m sixty-four, a day in the life, number nine, the lonely hearts club band…

    The whole world changed but somehow, somehow…we stayed the same. Is it too late? Is grief all we have in common, now? Who the fuck says? Not me. I say act a fool, be a character.

    These are the eternal verities: it is the odd we remark upon, it is the characters who endure.

    tj

    • As per usual, Tim Joe, your comment is way more interesting than the post to which it is attached.

      When you get the prosthetic device that kicks you in the ass, please pick up a prosthetic foot for my mouth. Would save wear and tear on my own foot, which finds its way there often.

      Grief is not all we have in common. There’s also booze, sunshine, smartassery, an appreciation for handmade things, the word and being characters. I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

        • and that last sentence was perfect. not mine, yours. we are, indeed, all together

          you can tell i’m drinking when i can’t find the shift key. i have yet to, mcarthy like(cormac, that is) mustered the courage to skip punctuation

  5. I wish you could have met Jane Swanson, she was a friend of the family up in Illinois and all us grandkids just called her Big Jane. She was quite a character and us kids loved it when she came around ’cause you never knew what was going to come out of her mouth or what she was going to do and she would let us all pile into her car and take us to the FrostTop for black cows.

    My grandmother absolutely LOVED pickled pig’s feet, and to this day, it’s still a mystery to me why, because they are pretty disgusting. I wouldn’t be surprised if, during hypnosis therapy, it came out that I’m a vegetarian today because of a long buried memory of being traumatized by a pickled pig’s foot.

    • Big Jane sounds awesome. What is a black cow?

      The only thing in the meat department that grossed me out about as much as the pig feet was liver. All cold and gelatinous. Shudder.

      • Donald Fagen told me years ago that he was writing about his first collegiate break-up at a corner pharmacy called Rudy’s. The “kids’ would smoke some “pot’ and then go in to the counter and have banana splits and drink “black cows”: A Coke and ice cream soda. Sounds pretty good, and would not go bad with a shot of Morgan’s.

        yer pal, Deacon Blues

  6. Oh, yeah, you got totally blog-jacked by TJ, but it is always a great reading experience. If you have not yet, check out the adventures of Blix over at the trailer park.

    By the way……Jim Bangs = does NOT own stretchy coach’s shorts

    • Jim, CryJack’s place is like the joint where I come in the back door without knocking, complain about the dog farts and help myself to a beer. And then I go to her brother’s place and try to out-woodmeister him, at least in theory, because he passed me up long ago in practice. I’m glad you found these guys. Tell the world. And don’t be shy, you look GOOD in those shorts.

      tj

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