Saturday, August 18, 2007

Life in a Northern Town

I grew up with characters. Not cartoon ones, though there were certainly enough of those in my young life, but the real-life kind. People with interesting stories and personalities. The odd, the quirky, and the downright strange. And the more idiosyncrasies they had the more I loved being around them.

For instance, I have fond memories of a friend of the family who, when we had our yearly cookout at a local lake, would eat live dragonflies for my amusement. He'd pluck them out of the air, bring them close to my face so I could get a good look at them, and then swallow them whole as I clapped with glee. This was also the same man who made the best kapusta around. Any man who works that closely with a lot of cabbage has got to have an eccentricity or two, if you ask me.

My extended family had their own peculiarities, but it's the friends and acquaintances of my parents, aunts and uncles who I think back on now with real fondness. The friends of my father and uncles were all a bunch of loud, hard drinking and hard working blue collar guys who would spend their precious time off from work at the local social club. This was the place my father would take my sister and me to when it was his turn to "babysit". He'd hand us a bunch of quarters for the pinball machine, kept us quiet with a steady supply of Coca Cola, chips and Slim-Jims, and then he'd spend the rest of the afternoon solving the world's problems with his buddies over bottles of beer and shots of whiskey.

The men had strange names like Uncle V, Montsy, Ratchet, and Cisco. They told off-colored jokes, but usually had the good sense to be embarrassed when they had gone too far in the company of young girls. Embarrassed, but not enough to stop telling the jokes. To this day I love a dirty joke and there is not much you can say that will shock me. Go ahead, give it your best shot.

"Breaking balls" was the sport of choice, and the better you were the more you were respected. They called each other slurs based on their nationalities, but with fondness. Frenchies, Geese, Pollocks, everyone was defined in some way by their heritage. If you could not be labeled so easily from your background you could be sure there would be some physical or mental characteristic that would shape you nickname.

My mother's friends were quieter. Not so much the characters as the men, but I respected them. They were the glue that held their families together, and in my working class town that was very important.

But it was the men who left their indelible marks. They helped shape who I am today.

I don't belong to that life anymore. I left the working class behind in favor of a white collar husband. I've traveled, evolved and tried to educate myself away from that way of life, but sometimes I can still fall back into it, like a comfortable chair, or shrug it on like an overcoat. I have no desire to go back to that life full time, I probably couldn't fit in even if I tried, but sometimes I wonder why I fought so hard to get away from it.

I live in a world of Keeping up with the Joneses, McMansions, and European cars. I like where I am and I believe my friends to be genuine, but sometimes I wonder if we're not all trying to keep up appearances. I long for the characters, the people who told you what they thought about you for your own damn good and to hell with your feelings. Maybe I'm remembering it all in a romantic light, but today if I had to pick between sipping martinis in a trendy club or bellying up to a well-worn bar to throw back a couple of cold ones and shoot the shit with the regulars... Well, the choice would be simple.

I'd pick the characters.

37 comments:

flutter said...

And why do I feel you would be equally adept at both? This was beautiful, chicky.

Kvetch said...

What wonderful insight into your roots. I have similiar experiences long ago and today. Well said Mrs. Chicky.

SUEB0B said...

Nice. I know where you are coming from...my dad's friends were all called Whitey, Shorty, Curly...they used to sit out on the porch and play cribbage and yell "SON OF A BITCH!" at regular intervals.

Carrie said...

I'd pick the characters too -- especially if there was a well-worn bar involved.

Those are some great memories!

Wendy said...

Sounds like the stories I heard about my grandfather and his friends. It was the family joke that they had their mafia meetings in the broken down garage where a Dollar General stands, now. Let me rest everyone's minds there was no whacking going on. At least, that is what they wanted us to think. ;)

However, the grandchildren were not privy to this, but our parents were. My father went to poker games in Chicago with his dad. And the other children got into misfit at my grandmother's beauty shops.

My grandparents are gone, now, and so are the wonderful stories. I do remember my grandfather in the same way as you remember you dad and his friends. They joked with each other, spread racial slurs like butter and just had a good time.

slouching mom said...

I'd take the characters every single time. Thank you for reminding me.

mothergoosemouse said...

Characters are the greatest. We need more characters in the white collar world that so many of us inhabit. I suppose we can start by letting our inner characters out more often, not being afraid of what the Joneses might think.

margalit said...

I've always lived in an upper middle class burb of professional and white collar workers, and yet there are PLENTY of characters to go around. Here in richyrichville, we have the lady that dresses every single day in a red suit with a pert red hat, high heels in red, of course, and carries a red patent leather handbag. Nobody seems to know from where she comes, but she's a riot to talk to. We've got another lady, a broad as she'd be called by men, who is almost indescribably. She wears makeup up to her eyebrown and down to her cheekbones. Black liner that goes to her hairline. The THICKEST worcester accent, and she dresses like a clown.

At the lake, we've got a huge cadre of old Italians who still play bocci and speak in the olde tongue and celebrate every feast day. We've got the HIbernian club that seems VERY busy on nights where everyone else is home watching TV.

The characters are here. They are just as intersting. But they're a bit harder to find. Because of my life with a crazy kid, a character himself, I've met many many of the characters. I could tell you how to find them in your own community. I promise you, they're there.

Redneck Mommy said...

I'm surrounded by the characters in my real life and I wouldn't have it any way. My family is as blue-collar as it gets.

Odd that I'm the white-collared sheep in my own home...

I loved this post. You just reminded me why I love my community so much.

And I'll always tell it to you like it is...no matter what.

Promise.

Sandra said...

I too grew up with these characters. So many colourful, wonderful, raw, honest characters. I miss them like crazy as my urban life looks so different now. My favourite was Mr. Lewis, my dad's best friend. He was like a giant with a bellowing voice and could bust balls like no one's business.

Oh, The Joys said...

Well we should get our families together then. They'd get along just right.

I so understand this post. I really loved it - and I so SO get it.

Cate said...

Very well said.

Sometimes I drive through the small town where I grew up and I wonder how my life would have turned out if I'd stayed.

Lawyer Mama said...

I can see this about you, fitting into both worlds, but feeling as if you don't really belong to either.

This is my extended family, my childhood you described. Only the blue collar guys had thick cajun accents. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

painted maypole said...

yes. do you feels sometimes that online we are bellying up to the bar, and sometimes we are sipping martini? I do.

kittenpie said...

It's funny, you fit into more urbane groups, but I can still see this working for you, too. Me, I'm somewhere in the middle - wine or beer or scotch at home with good friends is my place. Somehow the serious characters are a smidge too rough, the upscale a touch too snooty and refined.

Izzy said...

Your story reminds me of my own childhood. When we would go down to the Keys to visit my grandmother (and fish and fish and fish some more), which was frequently, my father would take me with him when he went to the Elks Club, which for the uninitiated, is a social club like The Lions Club or the Shriners etc.

Anyway, it was a similar drill. I got quarters for pinball and the jukebox while he had a couple beers with they guys (all characters, too!) and they laughed, told jokes & fish stories, razzed each other etc. I haven't thought about that in a long time.

Thanks for the stroll down memory lane :)

Mrs. Schmitty said...

What a nice walk down memory lane. And just because you live a different lifestyle now does not change the person you seem to be.

jan said...

I feel so surrounded by political correctness that it feels like censorship. We are removed from reality. Life has become the shadow on the cave wall for too many people.

SJ said...

What a great post, I totally relate to this. Thank you for the reminder.

Bon said...

i like "characters," too...have a family full of them, and have always found them worth the effort to cultivate.

perhaps we should start a "dirty jokes i learned in my childhood" meme?

great post.

Fairly Odd Mother said...

I'm with you. Give me a little grit and less polish over stuffed suits any day.

Manic Mommy said...

I grew up with a blue collar dad who hated white collar anything. I rebelled against that and so much more and married into a family of doctors, lawyers, and engineers.

I tend to be self-conscious of my background even when I shouldn't be. Thanks for the reminder that not all my memories are bad.

Jenifer said...

We had a very similar upbringing I believe. I took the fork in the road however and married a blue collar landscaper... we live in the house I grew up in (bought and remodeled) and my kids lives are filled with "characters". I once thought all I wanted was to get away, and I did for about 8 years, but once my oats were sown and I found the one I wanted to settle down with....I came back.And I couldn't be happier.

jen said...

beautiful, sister. i'd pick the characters, too. it's the real deal, isn't it?

Heather said...

I grew up with a lot of characters too. Really unique individuals. There was the cowboy poet who also rounded up cattle in a helicopter. There's my stepfather who is a good ol' boy who also just happens to be a genius with a few patents under his belt.

My stepfather is also the one who taught me to down tequila shots and who danced with me next to the river except we were both drunk and we ended up dancing ourselves into a tree.

And he was mild compared to some of his friends.

I like characters. I'd choose to hang out with them anytime.

OMSH said...

Is there a middle ground - y'know, like character purgatory? Where I'm slamming back margaritas and can pay the mortgage, but don't give a rip about McMansions and McFriends with McPlasticFaces?

~JJ! said...

My parents had a lot of characters for friends too...

I have always felt more at home with those types of people than the ones I am generally exposed to daily.

Great post.

Pinks & Blues said...

Oh... my friend and I were just discussing this the other night. Our neighborhood is made up of exactly the makings... and we love it - but we miss the old school way we were brought up with the funny characters, the staples of our youth. The ones I still joke about with my own brothers and sister.
I love this post, it's so so true.
ANy chance you want to move to RI??
:)
- Audrey

EE said...

I'll meet you at the bar...love me some characters!!!!!

Trenting said...

Wow what a wonderful heartfelt post, I can really relate,and I was Ms. keeping up the Joneses this year, on t.v. no less... I choose the characters too :)

GRAY MATTER MATTERS said...

Hey! We must be neighbors! I've always worried about admitting that I live in a very chi-chi area for fear that readers might reject me (guilt by association). I've always felt that the thing that separates me from them is a healthy sense of irony. Great post.

Julie Pippert said...

I can so relate. Character is so valuable, and you are worth your weight in gold.

Julie
Ravin' Picture Maven

Rock the Cradle said...

We need to go get a cold one together.

Truly.

Your old town or mine?

PunditMom said...

I feel so out of place in my world. Having grown up on a farm and in a rural community of meagher means, it's still odd to me to live in such a well-off neighborhood -- people drive amazing cars, put additions on their homes (or knock them down to build new ones). Yes, I have a great house and nice material things, but I still feel the need to pay heed to my roots and not spend too much -- taking pride in my Old Navy and Target shopping excursions. I don't think I will ever really adjust, but I think that's OK, especially for the sake of PunditGirl.

Binky said...

I had a similar upbringing with the kind of nicknamed "uncles" you're talking about. And in some ways I romanticize it too--there's something that just feels so FREE about the way lives were lived back then and there. But my perspective is colored by the fact that almost all of those guys were alcoholics--and the line between "characters" and "drunks" was a blurry one at best. My best friend shares that upbringing, just like our fathers grew up together before us. For sure, we are our fathers' daughters. I think about that a lot when I belly up to the bar or put back a bourbon and diet at home, which I undoubtedly do too much. Somewhere along the line, that legacy began not to seem so romantic anymore.

Ruth Dynamite said...

We're all characters in our own way - and especially the so-called white collar yahoos.

Rusti said...

Sounds like a great childhood - thanks for sharing. I too enjoy the characters in my life... they keep the life "real" :)