Yesterday I Learned … IV


Yesterday, I learned that taste is so relative that it must be impossible to make any money trying to appeal to it. “If you want to write a best seller,” experts say, “read through some books already on the list. If you want to make a living at this game, you need to know the trends.” The word flavor should have a capitalized ‘f’ attached to it in this article, for it focuses on the wide spectrum of taste. Food and drink have a flavor of course, but so do music, literature, and all of the arts in the sense that some of it creates the same but different tingles in the brain.

Today, I watched a gorilla at the zoo have what appeared to be a brain-tingling moment when he removed some dung from the anus of another gorilla. I might be assigning human emotions to the gorilla when I write this, but soon after eating the concoction, the gorilla closed his eyes. I thought he was taking a moment out of his day to savor whatever that other gorilla ate and whatever flavor that other gorilla’s digestive system added to it. The elongated, almost spiritual closing of the eyes might have been a coincidence, but I thought the gorilla enjoyed the concoction so much that he wanted to savor this moment before going back to the dispenser. There was a full tray of food awaiting the gorilla, in the southeast corner of his enclosure, but he preferred going to the dispenser before him. Watching that gorilla go back for more, I realized that individual tastes are so relative to the flavors we create that it’s pointless to try to fashion our work in such a way that it pleases everyone. We can only create whatever it is we create from our own dispensaries and hope that others enjoy it for what it is.  

Yesterday, I realized those gorillas defined for me one of the most unusual and successful pairings in music history: Ben Folds and William Shatner. I enjoy the music of Ben Folds, and I’ve been a fan of his for a long time, but there is some element inherent in his music that keeps it from being listed in that “my music” category for which all artists pine. If I informed Folds how frustrated I am, that he comes so close to reaching me, I’m sure he wouldn’t care. Not only would he not care, he shouldn’t care. He should probably say that’s on you. I can only do what I do. I can’t worry about offending you, or pleasing you. I can only do what I do. If it pleases enough people that I can make a living at this game, that’s great, but I’m not going to change what I do to please you or Betty Beatle from Idaho.  

Similarly, William Shatner is not one of “my guys” either, but he’s always around. He’s the green bean casserole of the entertainment world. I doubt anyone who hasn’t tried green bean casserole looks at it and thinks, “Yum!” but it’s at so many family get togethers and potluck dinners that we eventually “what the hell” it, until we discover it’s not so bad. As long as we don’t overdo it, repetition can lead to a level of fondness for it, until we look forward to the next get together or potluck dinner that has a tray of it.

When Folds and Shatner teamed up on an album called Has Been, however, it also reminded me of one of my favorite concoctions: granola and yogurt. On its own, banana flavored yogurt is too sweet, and while cranberry granola product is tasty, I wouldn’t purchase it as a standalone. When I put the two together, however, I enjoy it so much that I’ve considered submitting it to the overlords as my reward for living a decent, moral life. When I pass on, I want to meet my long-deceased relatives of course, and I wouldn’t mind it if someone wanted to play me a Brahams Sonata on the harp, but if they’re wondering how best to reward for a life well lived, might I suggest that the floors and walls of my reward taste like the banana-flavored yogurt and cranberry granola concoction I created.

When we eat concoctions like these, we spoon too much of one flavor most of the times. Some of the times, we spoon too much yogurt, and some of the times, we spoon too much granola, but there are occasions, at least once a container, when we hit a Goldilocks spoonful. The album Has Been is the Goldilocks concoction of music for me, and when I listen to it, I close my eyes to savor the moment. I’ve listened to that album so often that I’ve tried listening to other concoctions, but they rarely hit the mark in the same manner. On their own, Shatner and Folds created interesting, quality material that doesn’t quite hit that brilliant, Holy Crud! mark, but together they created a quality, Goldilocks moment. I would think that such moments are so fleeting them that they would want to dispense another collaboration, but perhaps they don’t think they can create another Goldilocks moment, or perhaps they don’t want to overdo it.  

Yesterday, I thought I had a universal sense of humor. Today, I realized that most appreciation for humor is conditional and polite. If our audience is predisposed to find us disagreeable, they will not laugh at anything we say. Humor and laughter also involves a certain quid pro quo agreement that calls for us to laugh at their attempts at humor. If we fail to live up to our end of the agreement, they will not even laugh politely at our attempts to be humorous. Toddlers and other kids are not a part of this agreement. Kids are the very definition of honesty, and they have no agendas, especially the ones we’ve never met. If we’re behind one in our local Wal-Mart, we might try out our best “baby laugh” material to see what kind of reaction we receive. They will turn away at some point, but if nothing else distracts them, we’ll get a second glance followed by a reaction. If we don’t get a second look, or a subsequent reaction, we can go ahead and assume that we’re probably are not as funny, or as charismatic as the polite and conditional reactions led us to believe.

Yesterday, I thought people people were so unusual. “I’m just a people person,” they might say when we ask them why they enter a business enterprise just to chat with some of the employees. “I don’t know why, I just like being around a lot of people.” Today, I found the term people person an unusual, accepted description healthy men, and women, use to describe themselves. We all enjoy speaking with other people, we do it all day, but some people go out of their way for some quality conversation. 

When I was much younger, I hung around my friend’s liquor store, and I worked in restaurants, and hotels. I saw a wide array of people people who walk into an establishment and just start talking to whomever would speak with them. These people “stick around” for a chat that can last hours. They even endure long lulls, hoping that some provocative conversation will weave its way through it all. They just stand there silently, trying to think up something interesting to say. My first thought was that these conversations sprang up in a more organic manner, until my friend said:

“Nope! He stops in here, every other day, and talks my ear off about the most inane stuff.”

Some men would walk into the restaurant where I worked, alone, and ask for a table in their favorite waitress’ station. Most of them didn’t have a newspaper or anything to busy themselves while they waited for her to chat with them. They usually entered after the breakfast rush and before the lunch crowd, so the waitress would have a couple of minutes to chat.

“Why do you stop and chat with these guys who seem to be a little creepy,” I asked one of the waitresses.

“You can tell he doesn’t have anyone,” she said, “and he’s harmless … trust me. Plus, he adds a couple bucks to the tip when I take the time to chat with him.”

I thought they were wrong. I thought they underestimated these guys. I didn’t want anything to happen to them. They were my friends. I was wrong. I over-estimated these guys. They were, in fact, harmless, insofar as nothing ever happened in my time there. These men weren’t just alone in life, they were lonely, and they had holes in their soul. Some of them were old, but most of them were men in their prime who would get dressed up, perhaps sprinkle on a little cologne, and get regular, fashionable haircuts for the purpose of fostering the belief that they might have a chance to spend some quality time, between the breakfast crowd and the lunch crowd, to speak to young, attractive girls.

If the traveling businessmen who frequented our hotel were lucky enough to time their entrance into our hotel, so that one of the cute, young women on staff checked them in, they would remain at the front desk long after their check in was complete. They just wanted to chat with some young women, and hopefully make them laugh a couple times. I intervened in these conversations multiple times, but they made it clear they had no interest in speaking to me. They weren’t rude, but I was obviously not the purpose of their chats.

“So how you doing?” they would ask these women with all of the urgency removed from their voice. They, too, were harmless individuals who just wanted someone to speak with young women. Most of them didn’t want to date these girls, or see them in varying stages of undress. They just wanted to chat. They wanted these girls to think they were people people. They were so alone that they just wanted a couple of minutes of that girl’s time to break up the quiet, tedious monotony of their lives, and have just one attractive, young female on God’s green earth say:

“Hank Schwertley, how are you doing? How’s that God forsaken Cutlass Supreme holding up for you?”

Business needs often ended these conversations abruptly, and when they interrupted the conversations, I could see the beaming smiles on the customers’ faces collapse. Their face went back into the more customary expression of fatigue, sadness, and loneliness that the muscles in their face were used to supporting.

The customers at the hotels and restaurants appeared to be normal men, with normal and pleasant dispositions, and it seemed impossible to me that they couldn’t get some woman to pay consistent enough attention to fill that gap they needed filling.

“You want to be a traveling salesman?” one of these men, a traveling salesman who stayed at our hotel so often I knew his whole life story said when I expressed some polite, conversational interest in his profession. “The first thing you’ll need to do is forget about ever having a family,” he said. When I asked why, he added that, “It would be unfair to any woman, much less the children you produce, to be on the road about 200 hundred days a year.” My shock was obvious in his expression, as he sought to lessen the blow, but he could not redefine the impact of his statement. Prior to his cautionary description, I considered this man a successful, self-defined man. After it, I saw how lonely he was. From that point forward, I realized he was a second fiddle. I finally saw him as the Stan Laurel, Bud Abbot character he was, who bounced off the more charismatic centerpiece of the conversation. Even in the polite, time-filling conversations we had with him at the front desk of the hotel, this man was always a second fiddle.

When we have such conversations with the people who orbit our lives, they remind us how fortunate we are to have people who enjoy being around us. I’ve felt lonely before, but I’ve never felt so alone that I went into an establishment just to speak to someone for five minutes.

Who are these people, and what do they do in life to gain some separation from the lives they selected. They want moments in life to help them make it to Thursday, and they want to find someone to notice them long enough to achieve some level of companionship, even if it’s only for five minutes. My experience in the service industry also taught me that they are a lot more common than most people think.

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