July 30, 2009

The Vermont Philosopher Expounds

VERMONTEvery evening, Darren, the youngish town philosopher, perches himself on the porch of the café after it closes and jots notes into his small leather-bound notebook until it gets too dark to write. Darren says he keeps track of the temperature, the humidity, the time, and any interesting phenomena or incidents that might occur within eyeshot during his watch. Directly across the street is the pizza pub known as The Spoke, and that’s why I think Darren really sits on the café porch: to watch the girls of the town come and go. He has crushes on five of them.

In a weak moment one night, I had begun a dispiriting walk toward the Mobil to buy a pack of American Spirits. I had quit for two years and only started up again after my second surgery turned out useless. Might as well get a little pleasure out of life, I thought. It was either that or joining the Israeli army for that apocalyptic war evangelicals are always talking about. But what I really wanted was just one cigarette. Mobil stations and delis aren’t allowed to sell “loosies,” so I always get stuck with an entire pack and then smoke it all up, stubbing disgustedly the last one out on the top of its fallen comrades. It’s as though no one has ever heard of that impossible-to-ignore urge for an after dinner smoke. So I headed for the Mobil station. And there was Darren looking over the town like a cat guarding its newborns.

“Where you off to?” Darren asked.

“I hate to admit it, but getting cigarettes.”

“Cigarettes?”

“Yeah, I quit, you know. I quit two years ago.”

“And you’re buying cigarettes? Why, man?”

“Because I’m smoking again.”

“Would one cigarette do you?”

“Sure would.”

“No need to go out and buy a pack.”

Typical of country philosophers, Darren rolls his own cigarettes and has become fairly expert at it. In a matter of moments he passed over a slender fag.

“There you go. Don’t completely fall off the wagon. It’s not the night for it.” It was a cool dusk, the kind of night when Vermonters think about sleeping on the sides of mountains. It was the kind of night people decide to talk in that Vermont way.

“You’ll always find trouble at the Mobil anyway. Potato chips and such.”

Darren’s almost half my age and yet talks to me as though he were a wise town elder. He lives in a cabin with no running water. He tells possibly apocryphal stories about slaughtering rabbits and making stew out of them. He once tried – unsuccessfully – to impress a visiting city girl with crystals that he claimed to have mined from a secret spot in the woods.

“I owe you,” I said. “Buy you a drink?”

But Darren said he had been out already that night. He said he’d take a rain check. He said he had tried The Spoke’s house wine and it was awful.

“Swill,” he said.

When I ran into Darren at The Spoke a few days later, I offered to buy him that drink.

“Sure, a glass of wine.”

“But it’s swill, you said.”

“Sometimes I get sick of beer.”

“So why am I buying again?” I had honestly forgotten. All I remembered was the promise. I had already forgotten that Darren had swept me off the road to perdition.

“I gave you a cigarette so you didn’t have to buy a whole pack.”

“Right!”

“But it wasn’t only a cigarette. It was counsel.”

“You really saved me that night.” I ordered a couple glasses of wine.

“Still swill,” he said.

“No, it isn’t great wine.”

“You know, this stuff has histamines in it.”

“Histamines?”

As usual, a small group of local drunkards had joined Darren to hear him expound.

“Yeah, wine is full of histamines.”

“I thought it was nitrates,” I said.

“No,” corrected someone, a girl he had been talking to before I showed up. “That’s sulfites.”

“Ah, the preservative.”

“See, you’re thinking of hot dogs,” said another.

Darren looked annoyed at the group’s loss of focus.

“It’s the histamines that’ll get ya.”

One of the drunkards leaned in.

“I don’t want to be the first one to ask a stupid question, but what’s a histamine?”

“Histamines? Ah, I’ll tell you.” Darren stroked his beard. “You see, it’s an inflammatory. It produces allergic reactions.” He raised a finger. “That’s what you get the anti-histamines for.”

The town’s wise elder, all of 24 or so and living in a cabin. His followers offered murmurs of respect for his encyclopedic knowledge. We all waited for Darren’s next insight, his next packet of knowledge delivered with a theatrical flourish that, whether it was true or not, bound us all to the idea of country wisdom and of the image of an autodidact reading under his oil lamp.

Darren sipped his wine.

“Also,” Darren said stroking his beard again, “histamines are released during the human orgasm.”

July 15, 2009

Gaming It

VERMONTWhen Paul came to take me to the airport, he admitted to me his guilty feelings.

“I woke up last night,” he said, “in a cold sweat. I felt bad about it all of a sudden. About what we did.”

“It” was Paul’s food stamps we had used to buy a cold cut spread for a poker game at my place.

“Really? I slept fine.” In fact, I had won against my Vermont cronies the night before. Even Paul ended up winning some money. The others, after their first hour of drinking and smoking pot, had predictably followed the inverse arc to losing. Paul doesn’t drink and I’d kept away from the beer, not because my fidelity to the game prohibits it, but because of my ongoing social anxiety that now rules my life: my pernicious gas problems thanks to the surgery on my stomach.

“I was thinking about what you were saying yesterday,” Paul said. “The ethical quandary.” He looked worried for moment, before his expression changed and he lashed out. “I can’t believe you were on my case about it!”

“Oh, about the food stamps?”

I had lightly berated Paul for using food stamps to pay for our spread. Paul receives a monthly food stipend of $170 even though he already gets fed three times a day in exchange for maintenance work. I berated him only lightly because if we didn’t use his food stamps, I would have had to pay for the turkey, the roast beef, the muenster cheese, the Gruyère, the cheddar, the crackers, the chicken wings, the kalamata olives, the breads, the spicy brown mustard and the mayonnaise, the potato chips, the hummus, and the Coca-Cola.

I wanted to buy beer, too, but food stamps don’t pay for beer. I’m not sure why potato chips get covered, though. The two go hand in hand.

“You realize,” I had said to him, as we prepared our shopping list, “that this is wrong.”

“Why is it wrong? They gave me the card. Why shouldn’t I use it?”

How Paul had gotten his food stamps card in the first place is a tale that I’ll get to in a minute.

“Because you don’t need it. It’s for people who don’t have food.”

“Listen, don’t tell any of those guys that we used my card for this. I want them to give us money for the food so we can split it. You and me.” It was a tradition among our group of players that the winners of hands threw a chip or two into the bank for the host.

“All right,” I said. We were wading into desperate waters. First, stealing from the government; then, stealing from our friends. That’s called double dipping and it’s frowned upon in these parts.

“I still don’t understand why you’re so upset about it,” Paul had insisted.

“Well, it’s not as though I’m indignant with outrage. I’m not flushing with shame. I’m not going to lose sleep over it. But let’s at least be honest with each other: buying poker food with food stamps is ethically suspect. It might even be fraud.”

“Look, the government gives grants to artists. What do you think they do with part of that money? They buy food.”

“Your only saving grace is that you didn’t actually ask for food stamps.”

No, Paul was just trying to get expanded state medical aid so he could schedule more appointments with his shrink. Now it’s time to tell the story of how Paul got his food stamps. He had gone to his state’s welfare office. Behind the desk, a tired, overweight, florid woman banged on a keyboard. Paul had been pleading his case. Suddenly the woman stopped typing. She looked closely at Paul.

“Uh oh,” thought Paul. “They’re going to deny me. They’re going to take away all my shrink appointments.”

“You don’t know,” said the woman, “how long it’s been. You’re the first person I’ve seen in weeks who can speak English.”

Paul smiled sweetly. They chatted. The woman happily expanded his medical benefits with a few clicks of her mouse.

“Ya want food stamps with that?” she asked with her fingers poised over the keyboard.

“Sure!” said Paul. The woman banged a few more keys and announced it done.

So Paul and I went to the Price Chopper and bought our poker food. Paul became nervous when we approached the checkout line. I felt too old — ridiculous, actually — for these sorts of shenanigans. So I abandoned Paul and waited for him near the supermarket’s entrance. I did this really because I am a coward. Of course the satan teens manning the checkout counter couldn’t have cared less about our plot as they bagged our Gruyère, olives, soda, chips and the rest of it.

And now, about to drive to the airport, having won at poker, having shared in the unintentional generosity of our friends, having enough leftovers to last a week, we – Paul, really – took a moment to feel guilty.

“I guess,” he conceded, “it’s not completely right what we did.”

“No, not really.” I threw my bag into the back of his car. “Er, should we make sandwiches for the road?”

“Yes,” he said. “Definitely.”