Friendship, Home Improvement, Rural Living

In Praise of Small Talk

Trigger Warning (don’t say I didn’t warn you)–I am about to quote (and praise) Garrison Keillor.

Some background:  When (in the terms some like to put it) Mr. She’s and my “love was young,” we found ourselves living in the low-rent district in Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington (the high-rent district of which was populated by industrial and (what passed in those days for) high-tech magnates).  But for us, the aspects of the neighborhood included only: Overviews of the exhaust vents of the Liberty Tunnels; the motorcycle gangs across the road–and the wife who threw knives, circus fashion, at the bathroom door while her husband cowered inside; the drug-addled neighbor–son of a popular 50s local-radio disc-jockey–who offed himself one morning after vomiting into my peony bushes the night before; the dog-fighting gangs who found nothing untoward about attacking me physically and in person; the criminals who confronted and robbed me one day on my walk home from the nearby trolley stop; and those who violated the house and removed everything (except my sewing machine–the most expensive item in the house–LOL) worth more than a few hundred dollars from it one evening when we were at an Atari users-group meeting (yes, Virginia, it was that long ago.)

What Privilege we enjoyed, as we tried both to put our lives back together, and make a fresh start for ourselves.

It was a time when we had very little money.  And when our family situation, on all three sides was fraught with difficulty and tension.  But still, we persevered.  And 40+ years later, I’m glad of it.

One of our family pleasures, all those years ago, was listening to A Prairie Home Companion on weekend evenings.  We both loved it, as did the kids.  It was non-political and non-polemic.  It was stories of small-town America, down-home values, friendship, pleasantry, music, sweetness, and light.  And its occasional guests reflected the same values.

We. Loved. It.  It was, like Powdermilk Biscuits, “tasty and expeditious” from beginning to end. About a land and a life we thought we’d love.  And (who knows?) one we hoped we’d enjoy ourselves one day. (And so we did.  Together.) It was about small talk.  About affection.  About connection.  About nothing.  About everything.

About being human.

I don’t know what happened to Garrison Keillor somewhere along the way, but at some point, things changed.  He became aggrieved, political, and (did I mention?) aggrieved.  And from that point forward, far less interesting and worthwhile.  And his program, and any subsequent utterances of his became, to our eyes, irrelevant and inconsequential.

It’s a phenomenon for which, many years ago, I coined the term “Garrison Keillor Disease,” indicating a situation where a person I once thought was interesting and engaging became obnoxiously politically opinionated and no longer worth bothering with.  David Letterman suffered from it.  More recently, I think Louise Penny (a former favorite novelist of mine) has become afflicted.  You may think of it, in the current parlance as being a form of “wokeness” that afflicts those of a certain age who really ought to know better.  But who apparently, and for whatever reason, can’t bring themselves to.

And yet.

Garrison Keillor has written an article which appears in Jewish World Review titled “Small Talk as the Instrument of Civility.”  Here’s an excerpt:

And so, heading off in a cab to church on Sunday, I notice the driver’s last name, Rivera, and think of Bombo Rivera, the Twins center fielder, and a song I wrote about him (“All the men love Bombo because he loves to play, and all the women love him cause his name ends in E-R-A”) but this is New York and Bombo was back in the Seventies, long before the driver’s time, but I say, “That Series game last night was sure worth staying up for,” and he said yes and mentioned Rosario of the Braves who was a favorite player of mine when he played for the Twins. “He’s from my hometown in Puerto Rico,” said the driver.

And there you have it, a magical connection. Eddie Rosario is a great player to watch, a clutch hitter, known for his tendency to swing at the first pitch, and in the eighth inning the night before he robbed Houston of a double with a dash to the left-field wall and an amazing backhand catch that you had to go online and click the replay six or eight times to believe. And then he trotted, cool as could be, back to the dugout.

The driver had never been to Minnesota but he knew Rosario had played there. He asked what Minnesota is like — he’d heard it gets cold — and I said, “The winters are beautiful and the people are very kind.” The driver said he has four children and wasn’t happy with public schools in the Bronx. I wrote their names down and said I’d pray for them. We pulled up in front of church. He asked what Episcopalians are about and I said we believe G od loves us and wants us to be at peace with each other. He agreed. I overtipped him.

An amazing catch in left field leads to a moment of fellowship and a statement of faith. We’re told to love our neighbor as ourself. One way to show love is to talk to each other, even small talk. Thanks for listening.

And there, as the current version of Garrison Keillor says, “you have it.”

One way to show love is to talk to each other, even small talk.

As a person whose posts excel (I think) in small, inconsequential–but, perhaps very human–small talk, I’d just like to say:

Here’s to those magical connections.

Postscript: So there I was, this morning, helping one of the remodeling guys carry a few sheets of drywall into the house.  There are two of them (guys, not sheets of drywall); I’ll call them Ron and John, because those are their names.  This is their second full week here.  Ron’s off today on another project, so John’s on his own; hence the need for a bit of assistance to get the sheets round the corners and up the steps.

These guys are terrific.  Salt-of-the-earth, take-us-as-you-find-us, and we’ll-do-the-same-for-you types.  I found them through a Home Depot referral, after the first guy stood me up by abscondering (local idiom) to Florida without telling me he was going.  I’d have been less annoyed if I hadn’t waited six months for him to finish remodeling the veterinarian’s new office before he started at my place, but I was exceedingly put out by his ghosting and subsequent elopement.  Once I did find a new team, I had to wait another four months, because–of course–they already had commitments and jobs in the pipeline.

As sometimes happens, though, it’s been a felix culpa.  These guys are better; more thorough, thoughtful, and detail oriented in the planning stages, and their finish work is better as well, probably for all the same forgoing reasons. (In addition, unlike the other fellow, they’re happy to have me participate; I wire while they frame; I plumb while they drywall.  And so on.  Along the way, I’m learning some new skills, and they’ve discovered that this rank-amateur girl has a few tricks (not those kinds of tricks) up her sleeve too.)

Yesterday morning, they showed up having driven through the McDonald’s drive in, with breakfast for everyone.  Including me.  I was touched, and honored.

Anyhoo, as I was helping John get the drywall into the house this morning, we engaged in desultory small talk, during which he told me where he’d worked before joining forces with Ron.  “Oh,” I said, “I know exactly where that is.  I used to live in Bethel Park.”

“So did I!” he exclaimed.  And so we compared notes.

Turns out that–way back when, in the late 60’s and very early 70’s–he lived two houses down and one house over, and was the young boy who mowed our lawn.

A “magical connection,” indeed!


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