I’m plowing through Chuck Klosterman’s “Killing Yourself to Live“, a gift from Pipeline Person JimH last Christmas that has taken me nearly a year to work my way to reading. As per usual with the books people give me, I’m wondering why it took me so long to get there.
People have been recommending Klosterman to me for quite awhile now. I believe this happens for two reasons, the first being that Klosterman has interesting and funny things to say about being a twenty/thirtysomething in today’s culture, and second, because I think some people see similarities between my writing and Klosterman’s writing. Now, let me be clear: It is obviously an absurd statement for me to compare my writing with that of an accomplished writer like Chuck Klosterman. I’m not making any sort of value judgement here. I’m only saying that since we both tend to write memoirish content that can veer in several directions, and are generally contemporaries in age, that there are similarities. At least, this is what I’ve been told by some people, unfortunately none of whom are Chuck Klosterman or people who are in a position to make me famous like Chuck Klosterman.
The problem, or course, with reading a lot of Klosterman (or any writer with a specific style) is that it can be difficult to not have your writing come out sounding exactly like that writer’s writing. Even now, what I’m writing comes out in Chuck Klosterman’s voice, which is fucked up because I’ve never even heard Chuck Klosterman speak. But I have an imagined painfully detached North Dakota drawl for Klosterman invented in my head, and when I read his work I apply said fictional voice, and now what I’m writing has that voice rather than my own slightly twangy Kansas hipster tongue that I usually imagine my writing to be in, which isn’t my actual voice in real life anyway.
And I’ll admit it. I’m envious of Chuck Klosterman. David Sedaris, too. All the writers, really. They get to live their lives by different rules. Snort coke with a guy you just met 20 minutes ago at the site of the Great White tragedy? Why not? He’s a writer. It’s all background work for him, no matter how wacky. He even gets to do it on an expense account. But if I tried that there’s no way it would work out. Why the fuck would I even be in Rhode Island in the first place?
I was thinking about all of this today while eating lunch at Wendy’s, when I saw something I had never seen at a Wendy’s before. They have a Greeter. Actually, he wasn’t a Greeter so much as a Follow Up Guy, one of those people who periodically walk around a restaurant and ask people how their meals are. As near as I could tell, this was the guy’s only function. And, I’m pretty sure he was retarded. Yeah, I know, bad word. I wouldn’t use it in conversation, but in my head I don’t hear “differently abled”, or “learning disabled” or whatever. I hear “retarded”. It’s not a snide or condescending word in my head. It just means somebody who’s not altogether completely normal, whatever that means.
At first I thought this Follow Up Guy was just a regular employee, but then I heard him approach the guys at a table near me and start asking them how their food was. His earnestness was a dead giveaway that he was special. He cared how their food was. You just don’t get that at a place like Wendy’s. The other giveaway was that he was like 50 years old. Again, I’m not dissing the guy at all. He looked happy and productive, such as it was, and that’s all to the good. There’s another Retarded Follow Up Guy who works at a pizza place I frequent for lunches, and he’s the same deal: Nice, friendly, older, the kind of guy who’s not so obviously different that you think anything of him until you pay close attention to the fact that all day long he just goes table to table asking people how their food is. I suppose, now that I think about it, that if these guys were doing a “normal” job I wouldn’t think anything at all about them. So maybe it’s the job that’s Retarded, and not them.
And I stand by that assertion, that having a middle-aged man walk around all day asking people how their food is in a fast-food place is retarded and bothersome, because the food is always the same. Does anybody ever offer these people legitimate feedback on their meals? I have to think these guys would short circuit if I ever said my pizza was too garlicky, or my fries not salty enough, simply because I doubt it’s ever happened, even in the training videos they (theoretically) had to watch before walking the floor. Jesus, that parenthetical was so Klosterman.
So the Retarded Follow Up Guy at Wendy’s strikes up a conversation with the guys I heard him greet. One of the patrons has an eagle or a wolf or something on his shirt, and the RFUG starts talking about how he loves nature, loves those nature shows, loves to hike in nature, walk in nature, and so on. And on. And these guys, rather than blow the dude off, carry on a conversation with him about nature and shirts they like to wear.
It’s not a crowded Wendy’s, so I figure I better deploy my iPod, because under no circumstances can I have this person engage me in conversation. I don’t necessarily even have to have the thing on; usually just having the earphones on will do the trick. Hell, I don’t even need an iPod; just having headphones on is the social equivalent of being in a private glass bubble, one that even an RFUG wouldn’t dare attempt to penetrate. It doesn’t have anything to do with what I perceive to be his mental capacity; I don’t want anybody not in my immediate party to address me in any way in a restaurant unless they are giving me my food or my change. Obviously, I’ll make an exception for a cute cashier or waitress, but even then I like to keep the talk small, because I’m not a jet set writer like Chuck Klosterman who can bed women in several different states at once and then use it for professional and comic relief. My wife wouldn’t understand that at all, and for good reason. So I keep it impersonal and distant at all times, which works out well because…
“Is everything OK, Sir!?”
Fuck! I dicked around too long looking for a specific album to play on my iPod, and now the RFUG is standing so very close to me and looking at the half-eaten Spicy Chicken Sandwich on my plate. And the truth is, the sandwich sucks. But it’s not his fault, nor is it Wendy’s fault, because I knew the sandwich would suck. I knew it would suck because I eat it at least once a week (usually via the drive-through), and I’m sick of it. The first time I ate the Wendy’s Spicy Chicken sandwich was in March of 1994 in Towson, Maryland. And it was good, a revelation at the time. And the ten or so times after that it was fine, too, up until sometime in 1997 or so when I had consumed approximately 100 Spicy Chicken Sandwiches. But I’m a creature of habit who somehow thinks a fried chicken sandwich is “better” for me than some of the other crap in my lunch rut, and so this unhappy relationship continues. All of which raises the question of Who Is Really Retarded In That Wendy’s?
But I can’t tell this guy my sandwich sucks, obviously, because that would invite a genuine interaction. I then make the rare step of participating in eye contact with this man. I’m not sure why. Curiosity, perhaps? Maybe I trust him, pulled in by his earnestness, and that’s what I think I see when I look at him. He needs to know, and I tell him.
“It’s really good.”
And rather than stay, or ask me about my shirt, or the iPod, or my Klosterman book, he smiles and walks on to the next table. I didn’t even get a chance to deploy my “Move on, fella” cues; he can tell I’m not a person he can have a genuine interaction with. He’s much, much smarter than I gave him credit for, which seems to happen a lot.
I have to make a stop in the restroom before I leave. I have no problem with using public toilets to do necessary business, unlike some friends of mine who will not sit on a public toilet under any circumstances. I don’t know if their refusal is a cleanliness issue, a privacy matter, or something else. As I sit reading Chuck Klosterman’s account of a discussion about Kafka and Duane Allman with a teenage waitress in North Carolina, I hear two men enter the restroom. There is only one stall, and it has currently been converted at least in part to my personal reading room. I realize my time there is short, and one of the men gives the stall door a couple hard shoves. I briefly wonder if the RFUG ever comes in here to ask people how things are going, but as I said, time is short and I open the door and emerge from the stall.
They are large, burly men. I know that somewhere behind them there is a sink but I can’t see it, as the duo takes up practically the entire bathroom while they wait to relieve themselves. Rather than try to part them to wash my hands, I simply leave. I know that’s not “clean”, but there was a bad vibe in the room, which I perceived to somehow involve the fact that I had been reading a book and the two of them were standing and waiting for one stall to use between the two of them, which in my mind meant they were about to have a conversation about who had the more urgent gastrointestinal situation to confront.
As I walked out the door one of them said, “I’m going to call Kevin while I’m taking a shit. He hates that.”