I used to work in aÂ steel foundry.Â It was a place thatÂ had only one qualfication for employment: when the nurse stuck a thermometer under your tongue, you had to register warm.Â Â This made for a workforce full ofÂ characters.
Every moring afterÂ knocking off third shift, IÂ drove to Dinky-town in Minneapolis to wait for a stool to open up at a little restaurant called Al's Breakfast.
At that hour, the clientÃ¨le was mostly people out of sync with everyone else; cab drivers, cops, musicians, security guards and third shift factory workers.
As long as you were waiting for a seat or could talk with your mouth full, the conversation was great. Everybody had a story to swap.
It is the way we unwound - by talking around things.
The cops prattled on about chases but neverÂ discussed searching anÂ abandoned buildingÂ for a suspect and the cab drivers laughed about weird runs, but not about the calls they refused to take.
Me, I told foundry tales, but kept to myself, the heat, the boredom, the Jurassic machinery that stalked my nights.
Sometimes our stories intersected.
One morning, I told the counter a story I heard about a crazy little guy who worked in heat-treat.
Larry had marginal intelligence at best which left him full of ticks and phobias and at the mercy of the unmerciful at work.
The thing aboutÂ heavy industry, prison or the army isÂ weakness is never toleratedÂ and for LarryÂ that would be his dim intelligence andÂ his wife, an odd not-very-bright woman who spent her evening hours on the phone, talking with another equally odd and dullÂ woman, also the wife of a third shift foundry worker.
Larry wasÂ paranoid about his wife and thatÂ was red-meat forÂ the kennel of hungry dogs he worked with.Â Not a week went by without a voice catcalling across the break-room, "So who's your wife banging now?"
And everyone knew who it was meant for.
Larry would keep his head down and pretend the torment was for someone else but on the way to the shop floor, he'd stalk off to call his wife - but she was always on the phone and he would never get through.
As the shift wore on, he'd get more and more agitated and periodically sneak off to call her but never with any success. By the time he left work, he was in full rage mode.
Then came the pay off.
Like clockwork, the tale would make the rounds.Â Larry hadÂ come home to findÂ his wifeÂ yakking with her friend and in a fit, he hadÂ ripped the phone off the wall and smashed it in the driveway.
That was in the day when Ma Bell owned and controlled everything, and the cost of replacing and remounting a phone was more than a day's wages.
The story was the kind we liked to tell at breakfast, funny, dark, and sad. The last time I told it, it got a few chuckles and a side comment from a police sergeant.
"We know about that one," he sighed, "it didn't turn out so good."
A few hours later, I sat near the window in my English classÂ so IÂ couldÂ monitor the girls walking under the cool canopy of elms on the mall. The professorÂ did the same, yet he did so as heÂ droned onÂ about "text".
He was paid to be there; IÂ paid to be there.Â What made senseÂ to him, made no senseÂ to me.Â
I love literature, I love stories, even ones that don't turn out well, but maybe it was just the late 1970's.Â Â What they wanted me to study wasn't literature or stories, or life, rather it was fads, agendas, and academic play.
Medicine explains the body, but literatureÂ explains the experience of sickness and death.Â Biology tells us what eats what, but Literature tells us what is to eat and be eaten.Â Â SociologyÂ focuses on the behavior oÂ groups, literature allows groups to understand each other.Â Philosophy covers the bigÂ ideasÂ but literature speaks to the individual.
Or at least it once spoke of these things.
I finished the quarter and never returned.
I mention this because of an article in The Chronicles of Higher Education. It seems the authorÂ agrees that literary studiesÂ are killingÂ literature, see Leaving Literature Behind.
I guess I am not the only one who never went back.
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