A serpentine tale

It’s obvious that writing, in any meaningful sense, is dying out. Likewise, the art of conversation is headed in the same direction — both doomed to the same fate as the carrier pigeon, woolly mammoth and great auk.

Since our primary mode of communication is the cellphone, and its preferred mode is texting, the sad truth is almost everyone is constantly communicating and, at the same time, saying nothing.

As for actually TALKING on the phone today? You’ve a better chance of winning the lottery without a ticket than you do having a lengthy conversation with anyone — at least anyone under 85.

It sure wasn’t like that in my gilded youth. Back in them days, Bunkie, people not only talked, but they talked in depth and at length. Was what they talked about important? Almost never. But guess what? It WAS entertaining. And therein lies the vital difference.

Essentially, in the pre-TV world, talking was the main form of entertainment. Sure, there were movies and radio, but neither was portable. People, however, were. So conversations took place everywhere. And I learned two vital life lessons from them. One was how to tell a story. The other was how to eavesdrop without getting caught.

My favorite “target” was old guys. First, they had the raciest stories. Second, most of them had lost a bunch of hearing so they talked loud. And third, to them, kids were invisible: We could be within easy earshot, but since we didn’t exist to them, they ignored us and assumed we ignored them as well. Or, come think of it, maybe they knew we were listening in, but didn’t care. Certainly, while I overheard hundreds of conversations, I can’t recall ever hearing them talk about anything intimate or scandalous — at least not about themselves.

Because there were so many downtown businesses then, there were dozens of places to pick up a tale or two. A diner, a bar, a restaurant, a hotel lobby, maybe one of the stores or even a candy shop. I think the only place I never plied my spying skills was in the library … for an obvious reason.

One of my rave-fave tune-in spots was diners, and the counter in Alice’s Restaurant almost always yielded at least one good story per morning.

Boys’ll be boys

Before it was Alice’s, it was Betty’s, and before it was Betty’s it was Bernie’s — now it’s the Cape Air building. I can still remember my favorite Alice’s story, which I overheard sometime around 1990, from one of “the boys.”

“The boys” were so dubbed by Alice’s waitress, Helen Bishop. Their label is in quotation marks because at that time, all of them were rocking the wrong side of 70. Then again, I think Helen had just entered her ninth decade, so to her they probably WERE boys. Their usual lineup was Jug Hayes, Jim Gragg, a Lewis or two, Ed Worthington, Francis Gauthier, and someone or other I forgot. They always sat on the counter on the north side of the joint; I always sat in a booth on the south side. Being in the booth kept me out of their line of sight, but still well within hearing range.

It was late morning on a gorgeous Indian summer day. I’d been in there a while, hadn’t heard anything worthwhile, was about finished with my coffee and ready to leave, when Francis Gauthier went into storytelling mode. Immediately, I ordered a fill-up and tuned in.

Mr. Gauthier (called “Gokey” by his friends, since that’s pretty close to the Quebecois pronunciation of his name) was a great guy. I knew him all my life and remember him as always being warm and friendly, always willing to chat, always upbeat and pleasant. He’d been a cop when I was a little kid and of course had a stash of cop stories, one of which he’d just launched into. It had taken place in the early 1950s.

Who can you trust?

He’d gotten a call that someone was screaming his head off in one of the boarding houses. When he pulled up in front of the building, even inside his car he could hear the guy yelling. The guy was on the second floor, on his bed, with a full-blown case of the DTs.

Mr. Gauthier put in a call for backup to take the man to the hospital, and then went back to the man’s room to try to comfort him. The man knew Mr. Gauthier and recognized him, so he calmed down a bit … but not too much. Mr. Gauthier sat in a chair by his bed and asked him how he was doing.

“Oh Jesus, Francis, it’s terrible!”

“What? What’s terrible?” said Mr. Gauthier.

“Them snakes,” said the man.

“Snakes?” said Mr. Gauthier.

“Yeah, the ones in my closet there,” the man said, pointing. “You see ’em, dontcha?”

Mr. Gauthier figured it was better to play along with the man’s hallucinations than to try to tell him they didn’t exist. “Sure,” he said. “I see ’em.”

“Right there in the closet, swinging from the hangers, right?”

“Right,” said Mr. Gauthier. “But they’re not hurting you, are they?”

“No, not hurting me,” said the man. “But they been doing something else.”

“What’s that?”

“Coming out and bumming cigarettes,” said the man.

“OK,” said Mr. Gauthier. “But is that bad, if they don’t hurt you?”

“Yeah it’s bad,” said the man, “’cause they hurt my feelings.”

There was a long pause and Mr. Gauthier tried to process what the man had said.

“Hurt your feelings?” said Mr. Gauthier. “How could they do that?”

“Remember I told you they were bumming my cigarettes?”

“Sure,” said Mr. Gauthier.

“Well, whenever one of ’em come out and bummed a cigarette, I gave it to him.”

“Very generous of you,” said Mr. Gauthier.

“Yeah,” said the man, “you bet, generous.”

“So doing a good deed like that should make you feel good.”

“It did at first,” said the man. “But not no more.”

“Why’s that?”

The man took a deep breath, let out a half-sigh, half-sob and uttered one of the greatest punch lines ever uttered in My Home Town.

“‘Cause now I’m all outta cigarettes, and ain’t a one of them give me none of theirs.”

Mr. Gauthier swore every word was true, so who am I to doubt him?

And, for that matter, who are you to doubt me?


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