And after replying “Good!” for the millionth time in their life, who could blame them for suddenly replying instead with, “I’m dying inside. How are you?” No one.
When I first moved to this little farm town in the high plains, I knew no one but my daughter (who was three at the time) and her mom, who had grown up here but moved away long ago and only knew a very few people herself. I had been a homebuilder and leader of men, and at times a well-known and esteemed professional, for decades prior, but the only job I could find at first was in the town’s little grocery store at eight dollars an hour.
The job had been designed for and held by a long series of teenaged boys and young men just out of high school, and the all-female staff of the store went well out of their way to give me exactly that status among them and not an iota more. For two years, I endured a daily grind that was as insulting and degrading to me, and made as personally so as possible by the people closest to me every hour I was on the clock, as I ever did in my life, far worse than any manner by which I had been treated working mostly among all men for a whole career, even back when I had been that teenaged boy myself.
Some unfortunate things also happened in my personal life during that time, some of a very high profile in such a small town. Early on, my now-ex-co-parent actually assaulted me physically and then called the police to accuse me, whereupon a 27-year veteran big city cop who was police chief at the time promptly allowed his girlfriend, reputedly a “domestic violence counselor” (whatever that means) to take over the scene and just followed her lead.
With the knowledge of everybody I worked with, this led to my being arrested and hauled off to the county jail in the middle of my lunch break. I managed to have some family help out with bail from far away after my “one phone call”, and was back at work the next day, a man who now stood accused of this “violence against women” whose job it was to work among women aged fifteen to fifty, and to serve customers who also were almost all female.
Suffice it to say, when I said above that I learned to “own the damn thing” when it came to small talk and pleasantries, that I have the experience to back it up. I held my head high, conducted myself as the gentleman that I am, refused to act guilty or apologetic or contrite in the face of a false allegation that went on to require a whole year for me to clear my name, with dozens of women all around me who were familiar enough with the details.
Long story shortened considerably, I now have been in this town eight years. I started a one-man home improvement service five years ago, which mainly requires me to be in women’s homes alone with them on a steady basis, my ex has now left town again in disgrace with our daughter, having made mostly enemies with her urbane rudeness and her unbelievably confrontational ways and her Obama T-shirt, and I now know probably hundreds of folks who treat me as a neighbor and friend even when we haven’t seen one another in years, men and women alike.
Honestly, I don’t think anyone ever believed I was capable of what I had been accused of doing. The more anyone got to know the one accusing me, the more skeptical they seemed and the higher my own stock was raised among my new neighbors. This included the schoolteachers (also all women, as usual), the ladies I worked with and every woman I met then and since.
The rudeness at work continued, but never was about my being some batterer, just that I was the “stock boy” whose job it was to be treated like, well, the stock boy. (My fiftieth birthday came and went during that time, making me the second-oldest person on staff; goes to show you what “respect your elders” means to some folks…)
But even during the remaining time I worked at the store, it was always the teenaged girls who came and went as short-term employees, who were polite and decent with me. The night-stocker boys were just a crowd of local jocks, who acted like a crowd of local jocks. They were so obsessed with themselves that treating me like a cockroach just came as easily as breathing to them. But no parent ever declared they didn’t want their kid working with such a man (everybody knew the story), and I had made it so very clear I knew how to stand up for my rights that the management didn’t dare try and use the legal case against me, and never did. They knew full well I would drag their sorry asses through court myself and make it as public as possible if they tried, and this never came to pass.
Now, folks greet me almost like a long-lost relation when they see me, but the one difficulty I now have to endure in the small-talk realm is being asked three times a week on average, “so how’s your little girl doing?” (She made quite an impact on folks while she was here, and the consensus seems to be that she has quite a daddy, and too bad that’s who she drew for a mom…)
I’ve learned to just say, “I wish I knew, you’d have to ask her mother, we haven’t been in contact for almost two years.” An odd thing is, I have never seen more contempt and disrespect directed at any group of women, than at alienating mothers, by women, who cannot grasp how any mother could stop a child from knowing her own father. I even know a couple of ladies who had high-conflict divorces and who describe their exes as too abusive to live with, who still see to it that their kids are in touch with and spend time with their dads, and seem to manage that difficulty just fine.
So let’s just say that small talk has been a bigger challenge to me these past eight years than I ever dreamed possible, and that I claimed it as my own and made it serve me. One of the best decisions I ever made.
Another is, to see to it that when I reply “good, and you?”, that both are actually honest things to say. I am good, and I do hope the other party is too. That is something I sort of treat as a duty, to people among whom I have earned my place against the odds.