A dusty diner on a long and featureless road in west Texas may seem like a strange place to serve as a kind of crossroads of the world, but so it was — at least to my wide and impressionable ten-year-old eyes.
Though the old diner’s food was more venerable than tasty, a crowd was always gathered there. Situated in a little town of few restaurants and among cattle ranches and oil fields, the diner could always count on hungry cowboys and rig crews to fill its booths and perch on its stools.
Whenever I set foot in that diner, I realized the images of the strong, silent Western man and the stoic Western woman were pure Hollywood invention. There in the company of west Texans, you couldn’t shut people up if you tried — and nobody even tried. Stories were swapped freely and loudly and met with raucous guffaws of appreciation. If a cowboy dropped a heavy mug of coffee on the floor, the din of “visiting,” as everybody called it, would invariably muffle the shatter.
My Granddad could chin-wag with the best of them — and at any volume or decibel the venue required.
“And so he goes, the old yokel does . . .” Granddad said, sprawled in a corner booth with his back to a sun-baked window. “This yokel tells the young lost travelers, You can’t get there from here!”
Granddad slapped his knee and roared, and I, sitting in the booth across from him, craned around to see all the people nearby burst out into laughter, too. I knew they would laugh, these people, even though they’d heard the story from Granddad a thousand times before. Even I laughed, though I didn’t think the story was funny at all, not its actual words anyway, though Granddad’s joy in telling it always made me smile and giggle.
I watched as all the crowd laughed along, some shaking their heads and even wiping their eyes. All these people, some couples so old and weathered they were as wrinkly as the balled-up napkin on my table; some young vaqueros up from Mexico to work the cattle; some college guys working the oil fields on summer vacation; families and truck drivers whose vehicles out in the parking lot sported license plates from a dozen states; an oil executive or two from across the globe, ferried in on sleek private jets parked out at the old one-runway airfield.
As Granddad and I left the place and stepped out into the merciless sunshine, I had to ask him: “Why always the same stories though? Get some fresh material, old man!”
Granddad chuckled but his eyes took on the look they got when he was serious, when A Lesson was coming.
“Yeah, you’re right, Bri. Most of those people in there have heard that story before. But that’s the point. People in there don’t necessarily have a lot in common. But we know each other’s stories, and when we hear them it kind of reminds us that we all have a history, together. And for the new folks who come along? Well, those stories help introduce them into the group, to feel welcome.”
I hopped up into the huge truck, tummy full and eyes sleepy, more interested in pumping up the air conditioning to cool the cabin than in talking too long about old people’s stories.
“Okay, sure, I get it,” I said. “Just, you know, maybe work in a story that’s actually funny from time to time, for my sake!”
Granddad gave me a playful punch on the arm but didn’t agree to any such condition, knowing full well that the tide of ancient stories would roll on, binding all those people back at the diner to each other, and binding him to me, for a long, long time to come.
Why do memories suddenly jump from wherever they’re safely stored in the brain to the forefront, demanding attention? As I read Clay Rivers’s recent call for submissions, this memory of the dusty diner and my Granddad materialized before my mind’s eye almost instantly, refusing to be cast aside.
It makes sense, in a way. My Granddad could talk to most anyone, a gift he gave to me. And his experiences were fairly wide, from points as far north as Maine (where he picked up that infernal “local yokel” story), to as far south as Argentina, where vast and famous ranches spread. Along the way, he could wisecrack with a farmer at a small-town Texas general store or dress up in a black tie for a dance in Dallas.
So, from him principally but not only, I learned to converse across lines and borders. And yet, more on my own than from him, I learned something else, too. I learned that a place like that dusty diner held a certain magic, to be sure, but its magic wasn’t equally shed on everybody. Some people, like Granddad, held the storytelling floor there by right, or so it seemed: he was a gregarious and vocal white man of property and roots in that place. The old diner that seemed so openly, even aggressively, democratic to my young eyes and ears was, to an extent, a gathering place for old and young, rich and poor. But to what extent? And whose stories or old, old jokes went unheard there?
Perhaps I started, to ask those questions early— to both love and hold at a critical distance the romance of the place — because I was a gay boy in Texas. I learned early enough that even there in that diner, romanticized as it was in my mind, some stories, some secrets, couldn’t be shared. And even after my own secret did come out, later, and even as I “camped it up” at the place after coming out, I knew not everybody could. How many guys there, permanent residents or young cowboys or oil field workers on the move, did I quickly say hello to or only very briefly nod at, as though I didn’t know them or barely knew them, even though we’d made love — because their secret wasn’t out and couldn’t yet be?
And though my own secret was out, and though I liked and could talk to all sorts of people, I eventually found my way into a kind of bubble. I became a humanities professor among left-leaning humanities professors, people who maybe didn’t love like I love but who held many of the same sorts of opinions that I did and often voted the way I did.
I imagine November 4th will be a charged day at many water coolers and break rooms (the ones not shut down by Covid), but among my own colleagues (whether at my university or at the humanities departments of colleagues I know across the country), well, most of us, the huge majority of us, will be reacting to the election news in much the same way: ecstatic should “our side” win; crestfallen (even afraid or terrified) should “our side” lose.
This is not a call for “both sides to come together.” Some obstacles — like questioning the value or dignity of a human being who happens to be of a different race or sexual orientation — cannot be overcome by holding hands across America.
Other issues — “mere” policy differences and political philosophies, though — those things we can discuss and must do so, somehow, at the water cooler or at the Thanksgiving table. Those conversations aren’t easy. I know; I’ve had them and wouldn’t romanticize them.
But, even so, that little gay boy at that dusty diner in west Texas did know, did learn, something. He learned that finding a starting point of commonality, of shared ground, even if that shared ground was a bad joke about an imaginary New England yokel, is something essential for an American, for a human being, to do. That loquacious little gay boy might even teach his (much!) older self a lesson about the importance of stepping outside his carefully constructed bubble, when and where it’s safe to do so, on November 4th and beyond. And in doing so, maybe he can get from here to there, after all.