Diversity and Random Encounters

Those of you that read this blog regularly know what a fan I am of randomness – random people, random facts, random language, random encounters.  Friday night, I was out with some friends at my local dive bar, and went outside to have a smoke.  While I stood in front of a row parked cars, I was approached by a 20-something kid, who apologetically asked,

“Would it be OK if I purchased a cigarette from you?”

“Sure, no problem.  You don’t need to pay me,” I said.  “You can just have one.”

“Oh, but I just hate it when people walk up to me and ask for one,” he replied.

“It’s really no problem,” I assured him.  “Here you go.”

“Thanks,” he said in a soft voice, then turned and walked back in the direction he’d come from.

He got about 20 feet away, then stopped, paused, turned around, and came back.

“You know that laundromat down there?” he pointed towards the huge, generic Coin Laundry at the end of the strip mall.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I know it.”

“I work there every night,” he said.  “When you have to do your laundry, if you come at night, I’ll be there.”  He seemed excited to share his schedule with me.

“I was just there two days ago,” I replied.  “But I was there during the day.”

“Really?  Oh.  I only work at night.”  He went from puzzled that he didn’t recognize me to understanding why not.

“I had the worst time getting that damn money card machine to work!” I told him.

Seems the Coin Laundry doesn’t take coins any longer – you have to pump single dollar bills into a machine with a plastic money card in it, then you stick that money card into a slot on the washer or dryer you want to use.  When I first tried to use the machine, I couldn’t get it to spit out a new card.  A helpful woman intervened when she saw my idiocy, then tried to explain in Spanish that the machine wasn’t working if you chose the English language menu.  I couldn’t follow her, so she finally just took the money from my hand, punched some buttons to get to the Spanish menu, fed it a couple of my singles, and there my card was.

“Oh, you’re not the first,” my young laundromat friend laughed.  “I’ll help you out next time,” he said, seeming satisfied with this offer of help in exchange for the cigarette I’d given him.  With that, he was on his way back to work.

Later that evening, I went outside again.  A group of four people stood chattering together near the door.  I joined them so I wouldn’t be that one random person standing alone pretending to be oblivious to the little crowd a few feet away.  I recognized one of the four – he’s a guy my friends and I call Axl Rose because he has stringy, long, blond hair, wears rock band T-shirts, and always sings things like Def Leppard when it’s his turn at the karaoke mic.  The other three, one woman, two men, were unfamiliar faces.  I was introduced to each, though I couldn’t understand the names of the two men.  The group was in good spirits.  The woman struck me as the sort that was excited by the prospect of playing games, even the made up sort you drum up in the car on a long road trip.  Happy that the thought had come to her, she asked each of us where we were from.

“Wisconsin,” I said.

“Norway,” said Axl Rose.

“Japan,” said man #2.

“Tibet,” said man #3.

“I’m from good old Oakland,” said the woman who’d started us talking about our childhood homes.

The conversation went on for a couple of minutes as we all marveled at the diversity among us, and the distances everyone traveled at some point to end up at the same dive bar in a strip mall in a residential suburb of San Francisco.  In our moment of solidarity, linked together through drinking, smoking, and generally horrible singing at a bar with velvet wallpaper, I realized, in Bokononist terms, we were a granfalloon, and I sent a quick mental thanks to Kurt Vonnegut.

Beginnings and an Introduction

My first week at the new job has been nothing less than a spectacular whirlwind of activity.  It all started last week when my boss called me and asked if I would join her and two others at some client meetings on Monday and Tuesday.  Monday was to be my first day at work, so I was a bit flabbergasted that it would be spent in client meetings without my having any real background about the company to speak of, outside what I learned in my interview.  Add to that the fact that the client was in Milwaukee, and I’d have to travel at the last minute, and the stage was set for a crazy beginning.

Lucky for me, my family lives only an hour from Milwaukee, so I was able to squeeze in dinner with a few relatives – not a bad bonus, all things considered.

Everyone else flew in on a red-eye Sunday evening, so I met them in the hotel lobby just in time for us to drive over to the client meetings on Monday morning.  I sat in the back seat with the technical guy that was along for the trip.  He is Russian, which was exciting for me, given my love of diversity and passion for communicating with foreigners.

The Russian introduced himself, and immediately explained that if I had any trouble understanding him because of his accent or because his English wasn’t good enough, I need only stop him to clarify.  He added that his written English is much better than his spoken English, though I think his spoken English is just fine.

Making small talk on the ride over, I mentioned that I was from the area as I explained why I’d flown in Sunday morning instead of Sunday evening.  His response was maybe the best response I’ve ever heard from a stranger after revealing where I grew up.

[Don’t forget the Russian accent…]

“The only thing I know about Wisconsin is from Slaughterhouse Five,” he said.

“Ah, of course!” I replied.

“‘My name is Yon Yonson, I work in Wisconsin, I work in 
a lumbermill there.’ The people I meet when I walk down 
the street, They say, ‘What is your name?’ And I say 
‘My name is Yon Yonson, I work in Wisconsin…”

“Yes, yes,” he said, grinning and nodding his head emphatically.

What could be better than that?  A Russian who thinks his English is bad, but who can quote Vonnegut – granted, it’s perhaps the most well-known Vonnegut book, but still.  All I could think was ‘Wow, it will be cool to work with this guy!’

I now have to settle on a name for my new Russian coworker.  ‘The Russian’ might work, since he seems to be the only one at the company.  I also tend to get ‘Sergei’ stuck in my head when I think of him, even though that is not his name.  I’m tempted to go with Yon Yonson, even though the real Jan Janson credited with the song was Danish.  I’ll think on it for awhile before I decide…


Cat’s Cradle

Since I’ve been ruminating on the time in my life when I was still not burdened with much responsibility and mostly got away with wandering from one job to the next, or one state to the next, or one book to the next, I thought I’d pull out a few of my Vonnegut books, because I worshiped them back then.  I was like a religious fanatic that lived and breathed whatever nonsense was contained in the tome of truth for that religion.  In that sense, reading Cat’s Cradle (over and over, as you can see in the accompanying pictures of my a couple Vonnegut books off my shelf) gave me my first vin-dit towards Vonnegut worship.  These books were a sort of life blood for me, validating my strongly held beliefs that the world was full of a bunch of idiot-robots without souls that were so preoccupied with their own existence that the rest of the world could just fall away and they wouldn’t really notice.  Let me say, I no longer view the whole of society that way, but I still sometimes miss the days when I did.  A chapter from Cat’s Cradle:

Bicycles for Afghanistan

   There was a small saloon in the rear of the plane and I repaired there for a drink.  It was there that I met another fellow American, H. Lowe Crosby, of Evanston, Illinois, and his wife, Hazel.
They were heavy people, in their fifties.  They spoke twanglingly.  Crosby told me that he owned a bicycle factory in Chicago, that he had had nothing but ingratitude from his employees.  He was going to move his business to grateful San Lorenzo.
“You know San Lorenzo well?” I asked.
“This’ll be the first time I’ve ever seen it, but everything I’ve heard about it, I like,” said H. Lowe Crosby.  “They’ve got discipline.  They’ve got something you can count on from one year to the next.  They don’t have the government encouraging everybody to be some kind of original pissant nobody ever heard of before.”
“Christ, back in Chicago, we don’t make bicycles anymore.  The eggheads sit around trying to figure out new ways for everybody to be happy.  Nobody can get fired, no matter what; and if somebody does accidentally make a bicycle, the union accuses us of cruel and inhuman practices and the government confiscates the bicycle for back taxes and gives it to a blind man in Afghanistan.”
“And you think things will be better in San Lorenzo?”
“I know damn well they will be.  The people down there are poor enough and scared enough and ignorant enough to have some common sense!”
Crosby asked me what my name was and what my business was.  I told him, and his wife Hazel recognized my name as an Indiana name.  She was from Indiana, too.
“My God,” she said, “are you a Hoosier?”
I admitted I was.
“I’m a Hoosier, too,” she crowed.  “Nobody has to be ashamed of being a Hoosier.”
“I’m not,” I said.  “I never knew anybody who was.”
“Hoosiers do all right.  Lowe and I have been around the world twice, and everywhere we went we found Hoosiers in charge of everything.”
“That’s reassuring.”
“You know that manager of that new hotel in Istanbul?”
“He’s a Hoosier.  And the military-whatever-he-is in Tokyo…”
“Attache,” said her husband.
“He’s a Hoosier,” said Hazel.  “And the new Ambassador to Yugoslavia…”
“A Hoosier?” I asked.
“Not only him but the Hollywood Editor of Life magazine, too.  And that man in Chile…”
“A Hoosier, too?”
“You can’t go anywhere a Hoosier hasn’t made his mark,” she said.
“The man who wrote Ben Hur was a Hoosier.”
“And James Whitcomb Riley.”
“Are you from Indiana, too?” I asked her husband.
“Nope. I’m a Prarie Stater.  ‘Land of Lincoln,’ as they say.”
“As far as that goes,” said Hazel triumphantly, “Lincoln was a Hoosier, too.  He grew up in Spencer County.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I don’t know what it is about Hoosiers,” said Hazel, “but they’ve sure got something.  If somebody was to make a list, they’d be amazed.”
“That’s true,” I said.
She grasped me firmly by the arm.  “We Hoosiers got to stick together.”
“You call me ‘Mom.'”
“Whenever I meet a young Hoosier, I tell them, ‘You call me Mom.'”
“Uh huh.”
“Let me hear you say it,” she urged.
She smiled and let go of my arm.  Some piece of clockwork had completed its cycle.  My calling Hazel “Mom” had shut it of, and now Hazel was rewinding it for the next Hoosier to come along.
Hazel’s obsession with Hoosiers around the world was a textbook example of a false karass, of a seeming team that was meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done, a textbook example of what Bokonon calls a granfalloon.  Other examples of granfalloons are the Communist party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company, the International Order of Odd Fellows – and any nation, anytime, anywhere.
As Bokonon invites us to sing along with him:

If you wish to study a granfalloon,
Just remove the skin of a toy balloon.