In a Small Town, Part III: Tony (You may want to read Parts I & II before you read this)

Tony was a short, stocky man with dark, short, curly hair, with a chin which jutted sharply, and with his head eternally cocked slightly backward, he had the unmistakable demeanor of a “Napoleon” short-man’s complex, of waiting to provoke a fight at every turn. The townspeople could not remember a time in the history of the town when the Corner Pancake House had not been in existence; it was as if, when the wandering prairie pioneers decided to round their wagons and camp for a fortnight at the fork where the Powhatten River and the New Israel River merged, and in the morning when exhaustion had overtaken them and the new settlers decided that this was as good a place as any to build a new town and future; the town came into existence almost overnight; and with it, the Corner Pancake House appeared, serving breakfast, lunch, and an early dinner to all who came, hungry and lonely alike; as well as meals and snacks and desserts in between.

It was in Tony’s nature to be a brute; to be nasty; to yell and scream; to demean and belittle. The essence of his very being depended upon being a street brawler. He had contemplated marriage a number of times, but he knew that his own nature would not change; and being unchangeable, he also recognized that he would only exponentially quantify the strife already permeating his life; for he yelled and cursed from the first moments after he awoke coughing and wheezing to the first cigarette being mashed into flat smoldering curls of stale smoke beneath his stubby fingers.

The fact was, he needed the quiet of each evening after he closed up the eatery, to come home and eat a sandwich or snack; to wash up; watch some television; smoke some cigarettes; be alone. His aged parents lived and died in the very home he occupied. This was his childhood home; he was born in this home; he lived in it; his father and mother grew old in it; he would one day die in it. In this house, he had never cursed, or uttered a word which would have shamed his mother or father. Once, he was “Antonio”; a son to his father; an adoring child to his mother; with expansive aspirations and dreams proposed by both; to finish his schooling, a distant, unspecified thought of “getting educated”; college, perhaps; a professional man; to one day “make something of himself”.

“Antonio” graduated from high school. Just as his grandfather and father had done, he began working at the Corner Pancake House. His grandfather died. His father became ill. Dreams quickly turned to daily necessities; then to routines; time passed; life became settled into a commonplace drudgery, replacing exotic dreams; Tony took over the eatery; took care of his aging parents; watched his parents die; buried his parents and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day.

When Judy first came to work at the Corner Pancake House, he paid her no more attention than all of the other dozens of high school girls who passed through his eatery; he saw each of them as no more than nuisances, of pampered and silly girls who knew nothing of life, sacrifice, of working hard. He had no conscious philosophical empathy to impart a work-ethic to these young girls. Certainly, as some of the girls suspected that beneath his gruff exterior, that there existed a kind, compassionate human being; and over the years, when they came back to the small, insignificant town, the girls began to come pay Tony a visit; to give him a hug; to thank him; to have a bite to eat; to reminisce about how hard Tony worked them, but how his “insistence for excellence” and the life-lessons he “drilled and instilled” helped them along their later road to success… Truth be told, Tony was rather amused by it all. It was good for business. He began cultivating a reputation that the public crowned him with. It was as if a coronation of thorns had miraculously transformed into an opportunity of redemption without lifting a finger.

He became even meaner and tougher on the young girls working for him; he could now afford to let the essence of his brutishness display itself with greater exaggerated ferocity, because the parents of all of the girls firmly believed that his meanness was for the good of character-building. He had the best of both worlds – he could be openly mean, and yet grow in reputation of being kind and compassionate. Parents stopped by to approvingly watch their daughters get the “Tony treatment”; paid exorbitant prices for burnt hamburgers and soggy hotdogs; left meager tips; and left satisfied that they were co-conspirators in a worthwhile, character-building endeavor.

And then one day Judy came to work for Tony, and kept working for him; and when she would not leave, his meanness only grew. He would lash out at her for every little infraction; he would call her a “dog” in front of the other girls, and have her do all of the menial work; when the infant patrons vomited, it was always Judy who was called to clean up; on given nights when mischief was particularly enhanced when the boys deliberately missed the urinals, Judy would be called upon. When a fight broke out among some particularly rowdy men, late at night, and tables were overturned and food was smattered to the ceiling, Judy was called upon; she worked late into the night; she worked without complaining. For the echo of Tony’s private meanness was reserved outside of the public’s hearing: “If you don’t like it, quit!” he would sneer, though only provoked by silence. “Whatsa matter? You don’t want to work here anymore? You want to get fired? Get the mop and clean it up!” Tony’s voice would roar, and as he walked back to the kitchen, his vicious laugh would echo and trail behind.

For the public, the open humiliation was accepted, even applauded. For the psychology of such meanness, in a small town where everyone’s business was known by all, it was really quite uncomplicated. The Corner Pancake House was known by all to be a temporary haven for an initiation into the workplace. It was a violation of an unspoken code to remain employed there beyond one, perhaps two, but certainly no more than three years; and when it came to the fifth, seventh, tenth years, the open hostility by all was accepted, even expected; for, indeed, it was shameful that a girl would have no more ambition than to continue working at the local eatery; and if Tony needed to be meaner than mean in order to teach her a lesson – not only for Judy’s sake but for all other girls in the small town – then he was in fact performing a public service! Good for Tony! And in the unspoken thoughts of so many; in the private, quiet whispers; ah, poor Judy, she has no ambition, and on top of it all, she has that sister of hers…

It is not surprising that tragic circumstances can actually bring to the surface a subterranean meanness; of a character of uncharitable darkness, bubbling, percolating, yet as a stranger who enters such a rural, picturesque town would never suspect such complexities of human baseness; but each town, as each person, because of the fall of man, has both the potentiality, as well as the fulfillment, of man’s inherent essence of sin; for of course we partake of a divine nature; but divinity would lose the purity of God if the contrast to man’s baseness was not only possible, but a reality; and in a small town, such a reality was so often magnified; and indeed, so it was in this small town.

Once, late at night, when a broken glass had been kicked under a table at a corner booth, and Judy had gotten on all fours, crawled under to clean, and emerged with dark red blood dripping from a deep gash in the palm of her hand, Tony threw her a towel and growled, “Why do you keep working here?”

There was silence. In the shadows, from beneath the table, Judy’s eyes glinted; they revealed a puzzled, quizzical look, with a glaze in her eyes, and whether they were tears or just a reflection of her eyes from a peculiar angle, Tony could not discern; but before she could answer, Tony turned his back and walked away.

Early on, Judy looked for an apartment. It happened that a new complex of apartments had just been built in the outskirts of town; as a promotional gimmick, the management of the complex offered a two-bedroom “luxury suite” for “free, for a full year” for the winner of a lottery drawing. People from all over town put their names in the drawing. Judy submitted herself and her sister’s name, never expecting to win.

She won.

But there was a catch. The winner had to sign a three year contract. If the renter failed to pay the full rent, or was more than 30 days late, the renter would be responsible for the first year’s rent in full, as well as any accumulated arrearages. Judy and her sister could live for free for the first year; Judy would work hard, save, and hope for the best. When Tony heard about this, he sneered at his lowly employee and smirked, “You’ll be homeless, penniless and in debt after a year.”

That same day, Tony called the owner of the luxury apartment complex. “If at any time Judy and her sister cannot pay for any month’s rent, I will guarantee payment.”

Now, whether the Reader is surprised by this unexpected display of compassion, it must be said that, in defense of Tony, we have already acknowledged that man partakes of a divine nature; the coalescence of beauty and baseness is the very essence of man. That is the complexity of that which we call man. In judging a man for his baseness, we disregard his divinity; in praising his beauty, we ignore his inherent nature of sin. How then shall we judge a man? Shall we condemn him when he acts according to the baseness of his nature? Shall we elevate him to the stature of gods when he reveals his divine nature? And so we must take Tony for who he is – man, in his confounding depth of complexity, where sin debases divinity, and divinity purifies sin, a single act of compassion may overwhelm and erase a life of meanness. We must therefore be vigilant in restraint and caution in judging the entirety of man; for not by a single act will the essence of a man be defined, neither for his divinity nor his baseness; and judgment must be defined from a vantage point transcending the historicity of man; and so we must apply this principle to Tony.

That very next day, Tony was particularly cruel to Judy. “You’re a worthless dog, and you and your sister will die in a gutter one day, mark my words,” he growled.

Judy looked at him, almost through him, with slightly parted lips, almost with a painful smile. Her silent and patient saintliness in confronting such open vileness from a man almost overwhelmed Tony. Tony turned and went back to the kitchen. He paused near the butcher’s table, heaved a heavy sigh; and whether it was a momentary sob, a shudder, or a muffled curse under his breath, we shall never know.

In a Small Town, Part II (You may want to read the first part before you read this)

So, let us continue in this vein; as I often say to my children, “Let us take the following hypothetical,” and proceed to create and build conceptual models of dynamic conundrums; and in doing so, the point of such exercises, of course, is to sharpen one’s core beliefs. For, you see, it is my view that (as I referred to in my commentary on Camus and The Myth of Sisyphus), the pebble which represents man at the inception of his essence must be formed, molded, and each roll down the hill and up again, in picking up values and principles by which one grows and matures and begins to formulate the essence of one’s foundational beliefs; and the methodology in formulating and solidifying such core principles can be aided by encountering and ‘solving’ potential life-challenges and – ah, but this is a mere digression.

Let us go back to the hypothetical: So let us suppose, that Judy has a sister who is mentally disabled; let us go further and say that Judy showed great promise as a young child, and all of her teachers saw her as a brilliant mathematician, a child prodigy of the arts, or perhaps a musical genius (you may choose any one of the particulars in creating this hypothetical); but at the age of sixteen, Judy’s mother and father suddenly died in a tragic car accident, leaving the two of them – Judy and her disabled sister – as orphans. Judy went to work at the Corner Pancake House to support herself and her sister; let us add to this tragic tale the fact that the dead parents left very little behind, leaving both as essentially destitute. Colleen (Judy’s sister) is 18 at the time, an adult by law; but mentally, she cannot function at a level greater than 6, perhaps 7, at most.

There is talk that she would be “institutionalized”; but alas, Judy will not let that happen. If she can show the well-meaning social workers that the two of them can be independent, then there would be no legal basis to have her “put away”. She works; sometimes double-shifts; Tony treats her like trash; but throughout it all, she smiles serenely, with an inner peace and confidence well beyond her youth; and the reason why she is able to perform the complex ballet of life at such a tender young age, is because she has a purpose, concrete and formulated, created by tragic circumstances, thrust upon her without cause, and some would say with such cruelty of fate; but nevertheless, it is a fate and circumstance, as trying and ‘unfair’ as the fate of life’s tumults can crumble a once-promising life; and here, of course, is the question; not a question which need be answered in a traditional sense; no, rather, it is a question which leaves one with a sense of unease, as all foundational questions are meant to portend; that such a life, in all of its trying circumstances – did it change the reader’s view of the value of Judy’s life? If so, Why?

For by most accounts, we would pass by the Judys of this world; not oblivious, but rather guilty of deliberate and conscious avoidance; and so we go through the customary pretensions of “hello”, “nice to see you”, “how are you”, “fine, thank you”, and yet without going beyond the carefully-circumscribed conventions which never reach beyond the surface-knowledge of a person’s life, character, or value; yet, we make value-judgments, as to the worth of our neighbor, the value of his or her life, without much knowledge of intimate or personal details. Ah, the reader says, now it is different because… Judy now is a figure of sympathy; almost of hero-status, and why is that? Because she is living a life of self-sacrifice, of having given up her personal dreams, of fulfilling and completing the essence of the natural gifts granted to her – that she “could have been” may always be a regret in her life; yet, because she sacrificed for the sake of another, we see her as having value, to elevate her to the status of whispering with awe, “A life well-lived.”

But is this so? The reality of life is that few of us would do what Judy did; we would create complex models of justifications; and, indeed, we do and can; and this is where the reader may become somewhat offended and defensive; indeed, self-denial and self-justification may overtake the reader; for how many have failed or refused to sacrifice the centrality of “self”; put away the aged parents into a nursing home; divorced a disabled spouse; disowned a depressed son or daughter; or abandoned a friend or neighbor because of the trying circumstances; because, to lend support would be to sacrifice a career, an opportunity, a life of comfort. “But it is different because…”; “You don’t understand”; “In my case, I had no choice…” Of course it is different; and each of us can fill in the blanks of the unique and peculiar circumstances which differentiate our particular life-episode from that of Judy. But is that truly so? Or do we elevate Judy to the status and stature of a tragic hero, precisely because we know that we would not have done what she did? Do we, out of a sense of guilt and shame, compliment and applaud the life of Judy, despite the tragedy of having given up all that she did?

Yet, to live with shame and guilt shows our humanity; and alas, that one day we would fail to recognize the hero-status bestowed upon one like Judy; that would be a day to rue.

In a Small Town, Part I

In the small town, the Corner Pancake House was where all of the girls began their careers. Sometime around the Sophomore or Junior year of Titusville Central High, the girls would waitress, cook, serve the town smart-alecks, and begin their trek from childhood to adulthood. It was the town’s singular rite-of-passage. It would last a year, perhaps two at most; the owner would yell, scream, curse and call each of the girls “lazy no-good s.o.b.s”; nevertheless, sometime “down the road”, each one of them would come back after they had gotten married, or graduated from college, or taken another job in another town, or in some big city, or every once in a while, in a foreign country – they would all make their way back to “Tony” and he would hug them as if they were their long-lost sister.

But there was once this girl – Judy; she never left. It wasn’t as if she wasn’t attractive; sure, she was quiet, perhaps a bit too introverted; and though you wouldn’t call her a “looker”, she possessed a certain sense of quiet serenity; and she stayed. By all accounts, Tony treated her like trash; one would have thought that, after the third or fourth year, when it became apparent that Judy would never leave; that she would remain a waitress at the Corner Pancake House all of her life; that Tony would have begun to treat her well. But it was as if Tony didn’t know how else to treat her. When Judy would leave a piece of microscopic lettuce in a hidden corner behind the salt/pepper/sugar carrier, Tony would take great pleasure in his bellowing voice, calling, “Judy! Get over there and do a proper job! Stop being so lazy and…” and with quiet serenity, without complaint, without emotion, Judy would rush over to the table and correct the infraction.

There were rumors, of course; rumors that Tony loved Judy; that Tony and Judy were secretly married; that Judy was secretly in love with Tony, but because she had promised her heart to a mysterious man in another town, that she could not… But the truth of it was that Tony didn’t know how else to treat Judy; he had never had a girl from Titusville Central High stay and work; and so he continued to treat her like the high school girl he knew her to be, even after years and years. Now, some might say that this is a rather sad opening for a story; but who are we to judge the reasons and foundational values that embrace the life of another? How many of us can know the inner thoughts of Judy; and how can we determine that her life was of greater or lesser value than the girls who came and went, who went on to “glorious” careers, or to exotic sanctuaries of work, play, lives fulfilled or forlorn? The worth of a person must be judged not by the work he or she does, but by the quality of attending to the task before the person. That Judy made sure that each of the tables was prepared for the customers; that the orders were taken with precision and pleasantness; that there was always a quiet smile, and a word of encouragement – are these not the episodes of value? Yet, how often do we pass by the many Judys of this world, and make either a judgment or none at all. Indeed, to not even notice may be the greater mark of cruelty, than to judge that your fellow man is of lesser worth.