6/5/13

Captive Audience

  As someone who’s worked with the public for decades, I’ve concluded that being a “people person” is more a matter of solemn duty than actual love of one’s fellow man. I consider the ability to behave respectfully towards talkative patrons rather than killing them a practiced art, like sharpshooting or making pancakes in the shape of ducks. It’s a talent that could be considered a calling. I know that for me there is no burning desire to absorb the time-wasting blather of others. I’d rather be home watching “Pimp My Desperate Housewife” like everyone else.

     But in this life we have a responsibility to our talents. And my talent, as I’ve come to find out over the years, is for nodding empathetically while a shirtless guy gives me a drunken account of his car trouble. My talent is for feigning amusement while enduring the family history of a toothless woman who smells like ham. My talent is for appearing to admire photographs of clearly unimpressive grandchildren. And because this talent is very often mistaken for genuine concern and caring, I’ve made a lot of friends I wish I hadn’t. Those in need of a sympathetic ear seek me out, and I get to hear all the triumphs and tragedies of their mostly tragic lives. Mrs. Mitchel feels I’m very understanding about the transmissions from Venus that instructed her to burn down her house. Mr. Ramsey knows I will find his story of losing his kneecaps at Iwo Jima entertaining dozens of times.
     And I do this, in part, to keep a sort of karmic justice in balance. Because I know that while I’m suppressing agony over some lonely old man’s story of his latest bypass surgery, somewhere out there, as part of his daily routine, my own father is inflicting identical pain on someone else. John Earl Holt is out there, at the pharmacy or the gas station or Wendy’s, trapping some miserable clerk behind a counter as he weaves a mesmerizing tale of intestinal disorder or his dog’s uncanny ability to eat an enormous number of peanuts. My father is a storyteller. But like so many of the forgotten souls who attempt to bond with me every day, John Earl was forced to take his show on the road because his family stopped listening to his stories sometime in 1972.
     Worse, we stopped listening before he ever finished any of these exciting tales. And as a result, my father never really figured out what qualifies as a satisfying ending to a story. As kids, we were usually all out the door and hiding at a neighbor’s house before he’d finished asking, “Did I ever tell you about my lower GI?” But every now and then, because we were trapped at some formal gathering we couldn’t escape, we would suffer in silence as he showcased his unique talent for spinning yarns into oblivion. Because he was accustomed to being ignored by his family, John Earl usually began these non-stories by throwing his hands up in the air to interrupt the hub-bub of birthday parties or Super Bowl barbeques and demand complete attention from everyone. No cornering a solitary victim while everyone else continued their chit-chat; this story was too good not to be shared with everyone.
     “Lemme tell y’all this story,” he would command.  My siblings and I would steel ourselves for the inevitable disaster. It was like watching an aging Judy Garland stumble onstage and announce to a packed house that she was going to escape from Houdini’s water torture cell.
     “I got up this morning ‘bout 8:30 and I had some toast I made in my little toaster oven. It was kind of raining outside, so I checked the weather forecast and they said there’d be rain all day. Anyway. I get up and I take a shower and I had just done some laundry, so I had some clean shirts...”
     My father remains convinced that the key to good storytelling is a stream of minor details that builds a sense of drama. The trouble is that, though these mundane events can be electrifying to someone as anxiety-ridden as my dad, they are of no consequence to the well-adjusted. Like a blues man, John Earl begins every story with “I woke up this morning.” It’s his “once upon a time,” the natural beginning of any great adventure. Regardless of the desired destination of any tale – a “point,” if it can be said to have one – it will begin with his waking up, having breakfast, checking the mail, and whatever exact sequence of daily tasks transpired. He is nothing if not chronological.
     “So I get dressed and the phone rings and I say, ‘Hello?’ and this woman says, ‘Uh..Mr. Holt,’ she says, ‘You don’t know me, but I’m Edna Cantrell’s sister.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I remember Edna’ and she says, ‘You do?” and I said, ‘Yeah, I knew her when she was just a little bitty thing.’
     There’s a tendency among Southern men like my father to make a story “come to life” through the recounting of dialogue, as if an everyday occurrence in their humdrum lives were as gripping as an Arthur Miller Act III. A Southerner might deliver his tale with, “I went in thar and I says, ‘Jimmy, you seen my tire iron?’ and he says, ‘What choo talkin’ about?’ and I says, ‘I need my tire iron,’ and he says, ‘Well, what choo need that fer?’ and I says, ‘My tire’s busted on the Ford,’ and he says, ‘What?’ and I says…”
     This is the sort of riveting performance my father employs, using the same high-pitched voice for every character but himself. But this only serves to add another level of expectation to a story that has no actual climax. The central point of his vivid reconstruction of events in this case is that he received news that poor Edna Cantrell has died. But even having reached what should have been the dramatic conclusion of Edna at the Pearly Gates, John Earl will continue to plow onward with an account of everything he did after he heard this news, finally wrapping up his painful monologue with, “So, I bought some eggs and went on home” or “So, I ate some Raisin Bran and fell asleep on the couch for a while.”
     At no point does it occur to my father that he could have simply blurted out, “Hey, did you hear Edna Cantrell died?” Instead he launches into the story of his day, only to grasp blindly for plot development once everyone begins to appear glassy-eyed.
     These days, my having to endure similarly exhausting attempts at storytelling from the general public seems like both the task for which my father’s babble trained me perfectly and my penance for having received his stories with such snotty intolerance. Meanwhile, John Earl still roams the land, entertaining the young people of Walmarts and Burger Kings throughout suburbia, having never cared to learn proper anecdotal procedure. Once, he came back from just such a tour with an exciting new story. It seems that, after getting up that morning and having cereal, my father approached a checkout girl at Piggly Wiggly and began to engage her in a lengthy narrative about why he preferred the old paper Greenback stamps to the new, digital variety. She cut him short.
     “This is my last day working here,” she said. “And I really don’t care what you think.”

     We all agreed this was the most satisfying ending to any of my father’s stories.


1 comment:

Pinkhamster said...

I was gonna reply to this right away but I got a phone call while I was putting on my underpants and it was a lady asking if I want to go to hear about a timeshare and have a free dinner. The funny thing is that I was just talking about dinner with someone the other day and I was reminded of you because he had a beard. But anyway the lady kept me on the phone for fifteen minutes if it wasn't twenty. Blah blah financial opportunities this. Blah blah wise investment that. So by the time I got off the phone, she'd invited me to come stay at her mother's place the next time I visit Tuscon. Great gal. You would have loved her. At this point I really needed to make little tinkle and no sooner had I put a number one in the side pocket but my phone rings again. This time no one was there, so I hung up and came back here to post a reply. Just wanted to say you did a good job.