I never really have fit in anywhere, and for a good portion of my life, I have felt…different. I was sure of this even at a young age. I'd look at the things I did and compare them to the things "real" people did. I remember being three or four, and riding in the backseat with my next-door neighbor, Bonnie. Her mom and my mom were in the front seat. I noticed how, when Bonnie looked around, her eyes, large, blue, and unblinking as most small childrens' are, didn't move in smooth arcs, like I thought mine did, but seemed to snap quickly from sight to sight. I learned over time that everybody's eyes move like that, but like I said, I didn't think mine moved that way, and so I tried doing that—snap, I'm looking out the windshield. Snap, now I'm looking at something on the floor. Snap, now I'm looking at Bonnie. She looked at me like she thought I was crazy and started to cry.
I have that effect on a lot of people.
This feeling still haunts me. "Hmm…not many bass players use Yorkville amplifiers, so that must be why my gear sounds weird. Gee, I see a lot of real bass players using SWR amps, so I'll go with that. And golly, I sure don't see a lot of bassists playing out using Washburn basses. Is that why my sound is a little off? It sure sounds off to me. Well, there's a power of Fender basses out there—guess I'll get me one of those. Maybe then I'll be a real bass player."
Stuff like that. And even after the two SWR amps and the Fender Jazz V, I'll look at other bassists using Modulus or Alembic basses, running them through Gallien & Krueger heads and Bag End bottoms, and think I should be using that. Just, you know, because it sounds realer.
I never have liked ketchup or mustard on my hot dog, and McDonald's just grosses me out. But real kids always liked that stuff. Why am I different? Is it because I'm not a real person?
Disney movies? Love 'em. Most of the people I know think they're gay.
All the bikers I know are into Harleys or crotch rockets. (Well, not all, but most). Very few have heard of the Magna v65, even after I show them my taillight and give 'em a righteous snootful of my exhaust. Most of them think it sounds goofy, though I think it's sexy as hell and sounds like an aria. (Well, after you get it above 6,000 rpm. Below that it sounds like a garbage disposal with a spoon stuck in it.)
I once drove across the country to see a burned-out mining town in Pennsylvania. I was gone for three days, and when I got back, people asked me what I went there to see. When I told them, they nodded, wide-eyed, and began to back away slowly. The same thing happened when I drove to Champaign one afternoon to see a statue in the middle of a garden on U of I's campus, and when I drove to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and back the same day to see an exhibit at the library.
How can I be a real person? All of the people I know are very real, and they all
seem to think the stuff I do is strange, so that must make me less of a person.
Of course that thinking's bullshit, but sometimes it's hard to keep the voices quiet.
So I'm used to not fitting in, and I'm used to hiding the things I enjoy to keep the derision from my peers to a minimum, and that's fine with me, because as I've said in a previous post, I'd rather keep the things I enjoy hidden from view than catch a load of crap from someone who couldn't see things the same way I do even if they wanted to, and feel like an asshole for my pains of trying to describe it.
But I did some screwing around this week while back at an old job, and the screwing around turned into quite an experiment, and the results of that experiment were, to say the least, worthy of some consideration.
This may require some background, and I'll fill the canvas in by saying that I wasn't always a teacher, and I wasn't always a musician. Before both, I was a truck driver, and I delivered printed forms (stuff like printer paper in triplicate—white, canary, and pink and little holes along the side for the big-ass industrial pin-feed printers a lot of business used back in the 90's; cartons of copy paper in numerous colors, as well as a shitload of white; invoices; packing slips; snap-out and offset forms) for a company owned by the family of my best friend Adam. I delivered most of these things in a large white cargo van that was surprisingly fast and agile for its size, and I got a lot of stuff delivered very quickly and had a good time doing it. That was, of course, before the company had the name and number printed on the side of the truck, and afterwards, a few phone calls to the boss from fellow motorists I'd pissed off slowed things down considerably, though it was still a lot of fun. You've never seen looks of outright terror on people's faces like those I generated while all kinds of stupid redneck crossed-up sideways, drifting a deep left-hander through an intersection while in the throes of glorious, bellowing-V8 power oversteer in three tons of not-my-van.
I did this with the ink rapidly drying on a bachelor's degree in Biology, and I quit after a year to go off to grad school. Of course, grad school's where I learned to become a teacher as well as sequence DNA, and it was during my tenure at Northern Illinois's Plant Molecular Biology Centre that I became a die-hard rock star, working on my thesis during the day and rehearsing with the boys at night, climbing into our rickety 1976 Dodge van and playing gigs in shithole bars in Rockford, Rochelle, Belvidere and Loves Park. That band came and went, as did others. But by and by, I graduated, landed a job at a local high school and began the teacher-by-day-rock-star-by-night lifestyle that endures to this day. There are times, however, especially when I've had a crappy day in the trenches of higher learning, that I yearn for the days of bombing down the expressways at 90 carrying 30 cartons of Hammermill 8 ½ by 11, bound for the Chalet Nursery in North Chicago.
Well, it's Christmas Break, and I've nothing constructive to do, so when the driver who replaced me announced his retirement last week, Adam called me up and jingled the keys over the phone. "We'll find a replacement in a couple of weeks, old son," he crooned, "but if you could help us out a bit, it'd take some of the pressure off until we do."
Hell yeah. Back the saddle, baby, and that old white van is just as big and as fast and as ass-happy through corners as ever.
Okay, so that's enough background. So today, I had four or five stops, in Addison, Elk Grove Village, Lincolnshire, and finally Chicago's west side. And as I'm pulling up to the first, I get this wacky idea.
I like to do different accents, right? And my friends are always saying how good they are, right? I'm only back for two weeks, and it's been eleven years since I've been to any of these places and nobody knows who I am and they'll more than likely never see me again after this, so…why not be from a different country at each stop? When you're waiting your turn in line at the many different loading docks around the Chicagoland area, you get a pretty good handle on the fact that a good many people who make a living driving stuff around in this country are not actually from this country. I could have some fun with this.
It take a little courage to step up to the plate, though, so at my first stop I pick an easy one. I'm from England.
I walk up to the receiving door at my first stop and ring the bell. The intercom crackles and a woman's voice answers. "May I help you?"
"'Allo, love," I say cheerily, and swing into my pitch. Instantly all the 'a' sounds become 'ah' sounds, and "Classic" becomes "Clahssic." (It's a bit more complicated than that, as I'm not shooting for the guy in the Geico commercials but something a bit more Northerly. Watch the movie "Snatch" sometime and you'll get the idea.) The door to the receiving dock rattles upward and I back down the ramp. Once all the cartons are unloaded, I shove my clipboard beneath the dock manager's nose. "Anywhere on the bottom, please it," I say, and all the consonants have disappeared. "Bottom" becomes "Boh-om" and "it" becomes "ih."
He signs and hands the clipboard back to me. "Right then, 'ere you are," I say, snapping out the middle copy and whipping it out to the guy. "Fank yew, guv," and off I go. The guy has a quizzical look on his face, and I'm tempted to bust out something like the finest Chicago police officer and really turn the guy's mind inside out, but I'm careful not to break the illusion.
At the next stop, I'm an Irish guy. A little tall and dark-haired for a guy from the auld sod, but then there's a Scottish racing driver named Dario Franchitti, so it's not out of the question. This one's harder to maintain, but "Bright" becomes "broight" and so the game goes on. Nobody asks me where I'm from or how I came to this country.
At the next, I go for broke and grab a handful of my roots. I'm Russian, and on top of that, my English sucks.
I walk into the office. This is a lumberyard, and it's full of big sausage-eating Chicago hard-ballers. Am I really going to go through with this? The guy behind the counter leans over, and, around his toothpick, mumbles, "Help ya?"
Oh God, I'm really going to do it…
"Eh, yes. I am from (here I deliberately bungle the name of the company.) I have twelve cartons of paper. For (just to be consistent, I mangle the name of the destination)."
The guy blinks. "Who'd you say you were from?"
I try again. "Is…name on truck. Over there."
The toothpick guy looks out the window, then back at me. "And what are you dropping off?"
"Is paper. For printer."
The guy looks at me, utterly dumbfounded, then says, "Hang on a sec. I'll get Lou." He picks up the phone.
"Thank," I say.
I wait for a while. There are other guys in the office, and the atmosphere is noticeably tense. Finally, Lou walks in and approaches the counter guy.
Toothpick says, "This tall guy here is delivering something, but I can't understand what he's saying. Talk to him, will ya?"
If I drop the ruse now, I'll get my ass roundly kicked, so when Lou looks at me, I say, "Am delivering paper," and thrust my clipboard at him. He looks at me, then down at the bill of lading.
"Oh, I got ya," he says. He looks over his shoulder at Toothpick. "He's got our invoices and five cartons of copy paper."
"Yes, copy paper," I say.
"Where's your truck?"
"Is in parking lot, over there."
Lou grabs his coat. "I'll help you," he says. "How big are the boxes?"
Would a Russian guy with shitty English know how to say, "About one and a half by one and a half by three feet?" I'm guessing not, so I wordlessly frame the approximate size with my hands. Lou nods and asks, "You got a dolly?"
I don't think a Russian guy with shitty English would know that word, so I shake my head and stammer, "Am sorry. A…?" I open my eyes wide, lower my head and turn it slightly to the side, and look at the guy. I might be taking this too far.
Lou mumbles something under his breath. It sounds like, "Fucking foreigners," but I'm not sure, and anyway, would a Russian guy with shitty English catch that? I doubt it, and anyway I'm not a foreigner, so I ignore it. Lou goes into the back room and comes out with a dolly of his own, and follows me out to the truck in silence. We load the cartons onto the dolly, then I hand him my clipboard. "Please, for sign," I say. "On bottom."
He signs and I give him his copy. He takes it and turns away, and I yell, "Please to have for Happy New Year!" all Balki Bartakomous on the guy. He waves in return, and he was pretty nice and helpful too, so I refrain from yelling "Yeah, ya sausage-eatin' pile o' rat shit!" after him. The temptation is indeed great, yet surmountable.
I climb back into the truck. That was pretty stupid, I acknowledge, but as I drive away and contemplate what country I will be from on the next and final stop, I realize a valuable lesson has been learned.
Talk about feeling like an outsider! And I was faking it the whole time! What must it really be like to work as a foreigner at a job in another country, knowing you came here because it was better that what was available at home, but being unfamiliar with the streets, the people, and not knowing even if you could understand or make yourself understood? Not knowing if the contemptuous looks and not-so-well-hidden sniggers of laugher were directed at you?
As I pull up to the day's last stop, I decide to be the Russian guy again. I'm considering being Mexican, 'cause enough people have told me that I look like a Mexican that I'm pretty sure I can pull it off, and besides that, my Mexican accent is frigging awesome. However, too many people around here speak Spanish and I don't speak a word of it, so it'd be too easy to get caught out. I know of only a few people who speak Russian, so I'm pretty sure I'm safe; nevertheless, I'm nervous, because I know I'm gonna do it again and, once you start, you can't stop--at least, you can't if you have any pride in your game. And I'm thinking to myself, these people here are going to see the nervousness on my face and know that I'm faking it. But really, if you really were a foreigner, and you really were going into a place full of people who knew the language while you were just stumbling around, wouldn't you be nervous too? I think, though the language barrier isn't genuine, the nervousness is and that's the final bit of polish that sells the product. I try it one more time getting gas on the way home.
"Please, twenty dollars," I say, handing the lady behind the counter, a dour-looking fatty with her hair viciously cranked back in a tangerine-colored hair tie and about five pounds of eye shadow on, a picture of Andrew Jackson.
"Which pump is it?" she asks, and she's not nearly as mean-sounding as she looked.
"Is Honda Civic," I say, pointing and pronouncing it Cee-veek.
"Sure thing, hon," she says. "Have a happy new year."
"Happy to you," I say, with a big dorky smile. She returns it. Gosh, she sure was pleasant. Would she have been as nice if I had sounded like I looked—a hulking dude in beat-up yellow work boots and an equally beat-up, grease-stained Caterpillar ball cap, black leather jacket, leather work gloves; black shades, a goatee and one motherfucker of a five-o'-clock shadow? I'm sure she expected me to sound like Jack Nicholson on amyl nitrates.
I think I'll be a little nicer henceforth to people for whom English is not the native tongue. And maybe I won't feel like so much of an outsider now. Or if I am, I will at least thank God, that, when I'm misunderstood by the people around me, it's not because of the language barrier.