Friday, August 18, 2006

The Five People You Meet in Fall River

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Sages and philosophers say that one goes on vacation not to visit a new place, but to appreciate the old one all over again when one returns. I was on vacation recently, and I think the sages might have been only half-right. Listen, sages: I went to Bar Harbor, Maine. Have you ever been to Bar Harbor, Maine, sages? It’s fantastic. I mean it.

Still, it was nice to come back home. Even in the best places, you miss the things that are familiar to you and cherish them when you see them again. The dog piss spots on my lawn. The way my car lurches forward and makes that almost human groan when it hits the first unavoidable pothole on my street and then the second. The way the red airplane hazard lights on the Brayton Point power plant’s tallest smokestack wink at me when I’m falling asleep, as if to say, “Rest well, little one—I’ll still be here in the morning, farting coal smoke into your lungs.”

And then there are Fall River’s people. Aaah, the people! They’re a totally different breed from Mainers. Bar Harbor people are friendly. Too friendly. Much, much too friendly. Particularly in the mornings, when I’m decaffeinated and cranky. They're stab-with-a-fork friendly.

After a week of hearing "Hello!" from every stranger I met on the street, I’d forgotten how fun it is to be ignored, even avoided. It’s good old Fall River-homestyle social hostility, and I’m enjoying every minute of it.

Being back in Fall River put me in the mood for a tribute to my favorite people. I even came up with a snappy title for it. Just sort of came to me. I’m thinking of turning it into a bestselling book! And then a Hallmark movie!

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The Five People You Meet in Fall River

1. The “Guy” Guy: He wears many faces, this man. And the circumstances under which you may meet him are various. You could be at a bar. You could be at your place of worship. You could be strolling down South Main Street and he could want to bum a cigarette off you and express irritation and disbelief when you say you don’t smoke. Like you’re holding out on him. Whatever the reason, whatever the season, the “Guy” Guy will give you the friendly greeting:

“What’s going on, guy?”

That’s who you are to him. You are Guy. An instant friend. Or enemy. Pay attention to the context.

Don’t tell him your name! He doesn’t care. You are Guy. Don’t like it? Gimme a break, guy.

Don’t bother to let him know you’re a woman. You are still Guy to the “Guy” Guy. It’s the “Guy” Guy’s way of saying you’re one of the guys.

He might work near you, or be your brother-in-law. He could be young or old. He spans the classes. He could wear a tie to work, inserting it as a familiarizer with commands (“I needed that report yesterday, guy”) or he could be that dude standing outside Cumberland Farms all day who needs oddly specific amounts of change (“Hey, guy, you got 45 cents I could borrow?”). The “Guy” Guy is any kind of guy.

Where the whole “guy” nickname started is known now only to history. Though in many regions it died with the first Bush administration, it’s still going strong in this neck of the universe. And only the chill fingers of Death can pry it from the vocabulary of the “Guy” Guy.

It’s not always “guy,” though. Sometimes it’s “chief.”


2. Vavó: She doesn’t have to be your Vavó specifically, although she can be. Anywhere you see an old Portuguese woman walking six miles in a black dress and shawl through shimmering summer heat carrying a shopping bag full of salted codfish—that’s where Vavó is. Wherever there’s a lady in hysterics at the wake of someone she knew tangentially at best—she’ll be there. Every time someone scours the seashore finding live barnacles and sucking them out of their shells then and there—that’s her, too.

Vavó is in every tassel hanging from the drapes. She’s in every driftwood painting of "The Last Supper" and in every commemorative plate decorated with a portrait of John F. Kennedy. She’s in every pot of yellow rice and chicken, every pan of octopus tentacles. She is in the wide-awake face of anyone who walks to 6 a.m. daily Mass.

Vavó is quick to anger. She carries a slipper and she’s not afraid to use it. But she is quicker with her love. The more Vavó cares, the thicker she spreads the butter on your bread.


3. The Community Booster: To defend Fall River from all enemies, foreign and domestic—that’s the motto of the Community Booster. This is the person who, if you don’t like Fall River, will demand you leave. Or, if you do like Fall River, will complain that you don’t like it enough or in the right way. This person is going to write me an angry letter tomorrow.

The Community Booster loves words like “community” instead of “city,” because “community” sounds friendlier. As if we all live in huts and share a bonfire.

The Community Booster also loves these words and phrases: “Proactive.” “Discussion.” “Future.” “Mission.” “Utilization of resources.” “Giving youth the tools they need for success.” “Raising awareness.” “Subcommittee.”

Often seen at neighborhood events, political functions, City Council meetings, or Chamber of Commerce dinners, shaking hands and worrying about the children, the Community Booster’s thoughts rarely extend beyond vague notions of school system reform. Which is not to say our schools are bad. We have great resources! They just need fixing. Immediately. But they’re doing fine!

A bad school system isn’t the greatest horror facing our whatchamacallit. Community. It’s not gang violence or spiking home prices or unemployment, either. The biggest problem in Fall River is that “this city needs to come together as a community.”

How, exactly? I haven’t figured this out yet, but it has something to do with standing outside together and holding candles.


4. The Kid With The Awful Mustache: It’s been growing on and off since the third grade, and one of these days it’ll come through in the middle. But don’t count out the Kid With The Awful Mustache just yet! It could work, given time. But for now, he isn’t about details. Let your imagination fill in the rest.

The Kid With The Awful Mustache lives for the moment. He is ageless. He listens to rap and doesn’t listen to The Man. He drives a fast car with shiny rims, and either he just got his permit or he’s been driving for years. With the mustache, it’s hard to tell.

He’s got a hot girlfriend. That's right. The chicks are all at first attracted to, then repulsed by, the mustache. She will prod him to shave it off at some point. He rebuffs her—what, and ruin years of hard work? Lay off, babe! They could be high school sweethearts—but then again...see, that mustache throws you off. One thing is sure: You have to admire his persistence.


5. Your Cousin: This is self-explanatory. In Fall River, if you meet someone on the street, that person is probably Your Cousin.

It’s never 100 percent clear exactly how. Mother’s side? Father’s side? One of those.

You've met this cousin before. It doesn't matter which cousin it is. You've met before, and most importantly, Your Cousin knows you. When you were 4? That time at Your Other Cousin's house? With the thing? You were just a baby then. Remember? I'd make it clearer than this, but I'd need to draw a flowchart of highly speculative authenticity.

Here’s a handy guide to recognizing who Your Cousin is. If you have dark hair and that person over there has dark hair, that’s Your Cousin. For obvious reasons. If you have dark hair and that person over there has light hair, that’s still Your Cousin. They have light hair on that side of the family.

Being cousins entitles you to all the benefits pertaining thereto: discounts on goods and services ranging from legal services to home repair, an extra free order of fries, several thousand votes come Election Day, and a ride to anywhere in the city. The VIP treatment. In return, all Your Cousin wants is for you to tell your dad hello from him. They're cousins. You can even stop by Your Cousin’s place anytime. Give him a call. He hasn't seen you in so long. But not next week. He’s going on vacation to Canada to visit his cousins.

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