We had gone for a short visit to a college town I hadn't been to in almost 20 years. I found it completely changed. All of the rough edges had been polished smooth and pretty. It showed in the high prices of everything. What had once been a dirt parking lot with slightly dilapidated Word War II era houses was now a paved, metered parking lot ringed by modern strip shopping centers filled with trendy restaurants and shops.
The cars, once older model student cars, were now flashy new SUVs. Dark areas, such as an alley, were now well-lighted, and the alley was cleverly named with a fancy sign over the entrance.
The restaurant bar they wanted to go to for old time's sake---because it had once figured prominently in their daily lives---clung bravely to its character, amid gentrified competition. The exterior was splintery and rough, the tables plain and unbalanced, coated in carvings of initials. The chairs missed slats and tilted, requiring balance. Inside, they ran lines, one for food and one for drinks. The bathroom was uncomfortably small, and the entire place had a dank air.
The crowd was largely middle-aged alumni, and we all stood in line, each person reminiscing about the old days, except me, because I'd never gone to school here and my one visit during college was so long ago. So I listened. In front of me, three middle-aged men acted like dogs off their leashes.
Small, Medium and Large. All looked like fit golfers, probably with business or law degrees hanging on a wall of a successful office. They lived in an area known for its McMansions, and discussed their lives, mainly their wives and children, who seemed to be little more than reflections of what the men believed (based on their talk).
Large joked about his wife, a woman I imagined to be the typical middle-class suburban soccer mom for their area: slightly too thin, hair artfully streaked and highlighted blonde, skin carefully accented by year-round color, make-up care of annual makeovers, clothing reflective of the hip yet conservative pricey store for women who were over 30 but did not want to look much older than that. She stayed home, that much I gathered from her husband's talk, and he didn't respect that or her too much. All of her activities, clearly carefully selected to be the Right Things, done for social position and to help her family succeed, were deemed "silly" or "little." I got the impression that he was out for a weekend with his buddies, and she was home caring for The Kid, as she ought to be. From what Large said, I imagined he voted Republican, straight-party ticket, and congratulated himself for it. I did not doubt one of the large, full-loaded SUVs in the parking lot was his.
The trouble is, I didn't buy much of it. He took too much care. This wasn't a man who really disrespected his wife or her life. Not this completely. I couldn't quite believe that. Also, the way he talked about school for The Kid...only a father who really cares talks that way. He knew too much about the educational system to be as removed as his talk might suggest.
I concluded he was talking big, talking trash to impress Small, who was very mouthy and obnoxious in my opinion, carrying the "ha ha I'm back on my old stomping grounds reliving my glory days by acting like a nineteen year old frat boy" a little too far. I knew nineteen year old frat boys who took better care of what they said and how they said it.
He trash talked the rival university, all other universities in general, and talked up his alma mater as if it was the only one worth anything. He mentioned a son, one of several children as best I could tell, who had fallen in with a Bad Crowd. They were apparently offspring of graduates from the rival school and had been trying to recruit his son to their "pansy-assed ways."
"They're always inviting him to go to football games with them, and one day he came home wanting a shirt for the football team at That School," Small said, shaking his head mournfully.
Medium, middle in size, appearance and behavior, tried to offer a rationalization, "Well the football here hasn't been very good for a long time, probably his entire life. It's kind of hard to get kids interested in a team that always loses. And the other school has a champion team. Kids just go through phases. That's a good school, anyway, though," he added, "So I wouldn't worry."
Small wouldn't accept such logic. He shook his head, and boomed loudly, "We don't put up with that kind of thinking. I was talking to (some buddy) and he asked, 'What are you going to do if your son wants to go to that university?' and I said, 'Well I told him if he wants to do that I hope he and his boyfriend are very happy because he isn't ever coming back in my house!'" Small laughed heartily, expecting everyone to understand his sentiment.
Medium was silent for a second, but then Large laughed and Medium joined in. I reeled back, unsure how much Talk this was versus Truth. I'm afraid to say I fell on the side of believing more than doubting.
Small's crisp polo shirt was tucked into starched and ironed jeans, a brown leather belt cinched his waist, Brooks Brothers casual loafers on his feet, and his hair was cropped almost military style. I believed, I admit it, based on his appearance, combined with his previous statements and talk, because one can only act so much.
I fell victim to almost as much stereotyping of him as he applied to the world around him. I imagined he used words such as "fag" and told jokes about illegal immigrants that featured Mexicans. I assumed he had strict black and white ideas. I thought he probably put his kids in certain clothes, neighborhoods, schools, and activities that were designed to raise them up understanding his black and white world view. Any deviation was a deal killer.
The man in the line in front of them, turned to look at them. His hair was a little longer, his shirt was the sort you can leave untucked so he did. He looked casual, like a relaxed sort of man. I imagined this man thought about things a little more broadly, a little more deeply. Things were probably a little easier in this man's world, for all that he didn't keep concepts as simplistically as others, such as Small, might.
He turned to look at them, and made eye contact with me. In a brief second, I think we exchanged horrified incredulity. I had no idea if this man was an alumnus of this school, or one of the fans from the school from the next state, down for that day's game.
But I did know he didn't think that remark was funny.
Up to that point, I had largely been amused, eavesdropping on these men, imagining them to be cutting loose from their normal grown-up lives of obligation and responsibility which can be, regardless of joys and blessings, a bit of a yoke at times. I'd thought they were silly---even if a little careless and thoughtless in their re-enacting their youth rather than simply reminiscing about it---and entertaining.
Yes, I had been amused, until Small made that comment, which could have simply been more talk. However, it had such a nasty edge that it leeched the silliness right out. Teasing he may have been, even to his friend or son, but to threaten, even jokingly, a child with disowning if he doesn't toe dad's lines? It's not funny. Not even a little, because at the end of the day, kids don't have that great a sense of sarcasm, yet, and moreover, I wasn't sure the man was joking. I thought there was truth to the attitude. Instead of the typical conservative suburban family, Small's family became something with a hard foundation, where kids had security, but an underlying fear of authority that resulted in either a heavy rebellious heart---as perhaps this son had, deliberately rooting for the rival team---or an overeager need to please in order to keep conditional love.
I wondered if Small had any idea or awareness of his effect.
Suddenly, despite the warm and humid air and close press of many bodies in a small space, I felt a bit chilled.
I pondered the talk, no longer amusing, but now vicious on multiple levels. One statement took the talk from obnoxious yet silly banter to completely offensive in its sweeping insult to a rival school, children who think for themselves, and homosexuality. It's talk like this, I thought, that perpetuates prejudice against varieties of lifestyles, ways of being, and beliefs. It's this divisive attitude---way of thinking and talking---that keeps us polarized.
And I turned from feeling amused to feeling sad. Instead of relating to these men, albeit through a sort of snobby and arrogant benign tolerance, I decided they were unacceptable. Instead of understanding them, familiar as I am with this sort of talk, person, and behavior, I stepped back and felt argumentative towards them.
Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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