Yesterday I met a man who by way of introduction told me he was born in 1938 and his first job paid fifty cents per day. In customer service this sort of thing happens frequently. Some folks just want to stir up conversation, state their opinion or ask someone else’s to measure the contrast. Sometimes words just fall out that take them by surprise. It’s not uncommon to pick up a few confessions, learn a new and nifty snide remark, maybe get inspiration for what not to do the next time I’m on the other side of the desk so to speak. Maybe get inspiration for what to do every day to make life better.
On my birthday two years ago I dutifully wore the birthday tiara that is passed around the office for such celebratory occasions and upon noticing the ridiculous plastic rhinestones and my goofy smile a customer says, oh, it’s your birthday! So, what’s the number? The number was 48 and with that information a cobwebby expression of nostalgia took over his face as he sighed and said he remembered his 48th all too well. That’s the year he started drinking tequila. That’s the year he lost the love of his life because she caught him cheating on her. Blew the whole damn thing up, he said, and still don’t have a clue why. In response I looked down at his invoice and muttered that’ll be $39.18 please.
Still wearing that nostalgia and with one last aggrieved sigh he paid the money and told me to behave myself, not to party too hard. Just in case. I promised him tequila had already proven itself as a friend. I’ll be fine, I assured him. I went home that night and drank bourbon. Just in case. Since then I’ve listened to sibling arguments, marital arguments, been asked advice on everything from car service warranties to what jewelry to wear to a rehearsal dinner of a cousin’s, and how to make a good potato salad. The conversations that get stirred in an instant of customer anxiety or euphoria or rage can be interesting to say the least.
This spry fellow who brought up being born in 1938 did so after my polite instructions on how to navigate the credit card reader while submitting his payment. With the exception of some time in Vietnam he’d farmed most of his life and didn’t have to look very far over his shoulder to relatives who knew what it was like to be pieces of property rather than citizens, but his primary interest in that moment was how much change he’d seen in technology over the years. He was there when TV became a thing, when automatic transmissions and air conditioning became common place. When people out in the rural outskirts were told it was mandatory to have their houses outfitted with electricity because that’s what the county required. Progress.
From a young adulthood of coal oil lamps and milking cows every day to eighty-one years old and carrying a smart phone—a helluva span. He was offended when he was told a few years ago that his social security check wouldn’t be mailed anymore, but soon enjoyed the convenience of direct deposit and online banking. He tried to explain to me that back in the day if something broke on the farm you just figured out how to fix it and that was that. Common sense made a whole lot more sense back then he said, and by the way, the land this building is on used to be a tomato field for as far as the eye could see. My eyes are getting bad these days, he mumbled. I told him that he could download the YouTube app and watch videos on how to fix just about anything if he didn’t want the bother of squinting at instructions.
He said he’d get his grandson to show him how to do that, but he’d have to work up to it because the kids tend to complain when he asks for that kind of tutoring. He appreciated my politeness in navigating the credit card reader because every store seemed to have a different gadget that required different buttons to be pushed. I left work wanting to smell garden soil and craving fresh tomatoes, hoping that when I reach my 81st birthday I’m spry and appreciative, still willing to learn new things, and still in possession of full-color memories.
Every now and then I meet a talker on the other side of the desk who’s voice can help me see the gloomy night his wife figured out he was a worthless shit of a husband, or, a little kid walking to school past miles of tomato plants after milking the landlord’s cows. Every now and then I get a good look at people around me … and that’s really what I enjoy about life when I take a minute from making magic tricks with the paycheck or worrying over how to make a story from a fragment of a sliver of an idea. People sometimes want to talk out loud right smack in the middle of my day. And it’s always good to listen.
You’d think such an understanding would be well grounded by now. It’s obviously why I like reading, because reading a good story is just like listening to someone bare their soul, speak about a topic no one in their immediate circle ever asked them to explain or explore. A perfect stranger can make the perfect audience. Amen.
This week I’ve read three short pieces: Superman and Me, by Sherman Alexie, Daughter of Invention, by Julia Alvarez, and The Flowers, by Alice Walker. Essays, short stories? Both? Gorgeous in their own right, every one. Quite by accident I followed the advice given by S. Jae Jones and Kelly Van Sant during one of their Publishing Crawl podcasts and read a really bad book while not writing. Apparently this is a good exercise. But I don’t want to do it again, seriously. Shadow Rider by Christine Feehan was painfully bad. I shun the Goodreads rankings from now on. Shun! But I’ll keep listening to the podcast. The hosts are otherwise very informative and generous with their expertise.
Meanwhile I’m finishing up two more novels: Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng, and Shell Shaker, by LeAnne Howe. Little Fires is chock full of some excellent storytelling, well-rounded characters, and a structure that just flows. I found Shell Shaker after my single attempt to follow some other advice given on writer podcasts including the aforementioned Publishing Crawl: if you’re having trouble finding comp titles for your novel, ask a librarian. I did just that. The first librarian didn’t understand at all what I wanted. The librarian in the next desk overheard my request, got very excited about helping out, and suggested Shell Shaker. She definitely pegged a few of the elements of my book, but unfortunately it won’t work as a comp title. The only real comparison that can be made is that my novel features a Native American grandmother. The end. I’m not giving up though. There’s a trip to the library planned for tomorrow.
Howe’s book is essentially a gorgeous history lesson in the strong, fierce magic of Choctaw women and the Choctaw culture. In between the intense shamanic lovely language used by historical figures in this one fictional branch of a Choctaw family, a contemporary murder mystery unfolds that lacks the intensity and loveliness. The effect is like reading two different books and of the two the contemporary parts just don’t jive. The dialogue is choppy and some of the characters seem to be borrowed from one-dimensional Harlequin Romance sidekicks. That’s a shame, because otherwise it’s a great concept and oh my goodness those flashback segments are breathtaking.
Two more books wait to be picked up at the library tomorrow, and after finishing Little Fires Everywhere I’ll check out another that’s only available digitally. Now that’s a fantastic invention I forgot to bring up in the conversation with my new favorite customer yesterday. Whoever came up with the idea to merge Kindle ebooks with local library checkouts … you’re a genius. Salute.