Introduction to Cultural Anthropology
Harry keeps a journal for his text on CA in his notebooks that Sammy criticizes regularly for its overall lack of focus. Sammy says he doesn't give a damn what Harry thinks and points out the cracks in the ceiling dust on the floor jumble of wires mess under the TV stand. He says his mouth tastes like aluminum. Harry just rides the bus.
Fifteen minutes late never early running behind sitting down. I am one person among many wage-earners. I like the ride road houses yard by yard, the crooked line of parked cars and fences chimneys trees—small shopping bags stuck whipping in the wind. I like noting day-to-day changes on each block. Got the trip down by turns. Yesterday at Conifer and Pine, a rusting Corvair disappeared and with it the purple bunny on its dashboard. Its curbside space remains vacant—a dusty rectangle inhabited by two crushed Black Label beer cans and a dirty diaper. I dreamt driving westward out of town in a three-lane expressway empty of cars clouds of dust from past snow sandings and tarantellas on the am radio and now could see it being towed east through cracked streets circumferencing the lower downton district. I watched a sunken man in dickie coveralls place it on a lift to be stripped. It would be crushed.
Last year I began carrying a small bag with me. I now carry a legal pad, two pens, a paperback dictionary, eye drops, lip balm, and an old copy of Robinson Crusoe. I keep notes on the pad. I wet my eyes as they dry and keep my lips moist for comfort. I haven’t read the book. I don’t have time for it. Not since I began practicing. I really don’t recommend using the bus to get around. But if you must ride, pretend to be a cultural anthropologist.
It doesn’t take much to anthropologize. There are a few simple ground rules. First, you must make lists. Second, you must recognize common patterns in random events. Third, you must draw your conclusions based upon the patterns not the detail. The last rule is the most important because, should anyone ever read your research, they are more likely to believe what you have written if they can easily relate it to their own experience. I imagine some cultural anthropologists feel a good observer should become invisible while in the field. His subjects should forget that he is there. Nevertheless, I have found it hard to meet this requirement. I like to be recognized, show the people what I do.
One day I was too tired to get out of bed. My cat really didn’t want to move anyway. While lying on my back hands clasped on my chest, I stared at the ceiling. I tried very hard to empty my head. I took in and let out short breaths through my nose. All I wanted to see and think was ceiling—flat white cool plaster close to concrete not moving not distant but just out of reach. At four twenty-five, I stretched my arms up trying to pull it all down in a series of strong dramatic grasps. Unsuccessful, I took a shower and went back to bed.
The sky was empty the next morning. Not a cloud in sight. No cars sped by leaving vapor and sand. No birds. I stood hands against my pant legs staring straight ahead. The telephone pole across the street was anchored at a slight angle. The street sidewalk yards and homes seemed to have torqued that pole as if the whole block were using it as a crutch. I wondered when it would break flinging my neighbors’ homes hurly burly into the horizon. The bus startled me as the driver stopped it—door precisely at my feet.
Silence burst in two hydraulic gasps. I walked to the back seats affected. I heard the word love smelled aftershave breathmints perspiration urine peppermint booze. My vision blurred. My hands shook. My heart broke. I remembered Carlene, a black girl from Summer camp who wandered the grounds and lake after lights out with me talking politics—two eye dots against the dark trees and purple water. Your folks are bigots, she said and kissed me. That Fall she sent me a picture of her in a cheerleader’s outfit with a short letter explaining her desire for us to move in together in a small bungalow outside of Muskogee. We both had a fondness for the Arkansas River, flash floods, and hail storms. I never wrote back.
I was overcome. I rode to the end of the line and hid behind the bus while the driver smoked a cigarette. He stared at me through his mirror all the way home.
I walked to the library and browsed the shelves like I always do. I walked through the aisles looking for something that would catch my eye. I dragged my fingers across the books, thwacked my way through row after row. I found a book written by a cultural anthropologist from some New York university about how people talk about their jobs. It was mostly interviews mixed with very detailed descriptions of how the subjects behaved at work and home. Each chapter was named after a subject and ended with the author’s conclusions. She arrived at her conclusions by comparing her descriptions with their statements.
One memorable story was about a guy named Tim to protect his anonymity. Tim drank malt liquor and wore the same pants every day. He struggled to make cell phone payments and spent hot summer days at the OTB with his pals Smarty and Pete. While Tim yelled at his girl Cheri and swatted flies, he related tales of a mis-spent youth (he was still only twenty-two) and truancy as he spoke about the economy. Eventually, Tim took a job at McDonald’s. He complained about lack of fulfillment and funds. The author wrote that Tim was depressed. Because of our consumer culture, he cannot afford his appetite for living. She found him attractive yet repulsive.
The next day I boarded the bus with pad and pencil. I often get carried away while taking notes. I gasp or laugh. I have cried on occasion. I read about how to conduct field research and have tried to become invisible a wallflower just part of the background.
One day I showed up in brown. I ironed my old Dickie’s coveralls the night before. I wore my Browns baseball cap. I thought I would blend in with some color. I thought I would go unnoticed. Unfortunately, the riders stared at me. So, now I dress like I always did like a guy like me always does. And when I write I chew on my pen cap suck on the collecting spit make educated moans and beam with delight.
I create names for the different kinds of people I observe. I have never seen a person I was not able to parcel away into one category or another. Some of my recent notes include the following categories: The Ritually Unclean, Obese Riders, Public Masturbators, Baby Sensationalists, Driver Talkers, Lingoists, Fashion Fans, Foot-tappers, Bible Readers, Lady-lookers, and Spontaneous Conversationalists. I have had to chronologically organize my notes within files grouped according to category. A typical day provides substantial opportunity for revision.
I board (Birch and Walnut), quickly show ID, and take a seat in the middle of things. I always make a show of taking out my tools. I open my bag allowing the Velcro fasteners to slowly rip apart. The tearing noise claws at the air and quiets things for a moment. The riders look at me (I do this everyday) and I look at them. This sets a mood. I look around smiling and open my notebook. I shake my head in affirmation to show them I am working.
Baby Sensationalist (Pine and Conifer). BS holds daughter high above her left shoulder aisle-side hoping people will recognize her holding baby skylarks for attention. baby cries because she is shaken too hard and doesn’t like her little tummy forced up and down against mother’s shoulder. BS lets her baby down upon her thighs and talks to her in baby talk how’s my little fatty puss snuggle honey and baby still cries embarrassed probably and passengers smile in an effort to make BS stop but she won’t because she does it every morning for twenty minutes between Conifer and Deciduous.
You have to keep notes quick and sort it all out later because the most important thing for a cultural anthropologist is to respect the performance. You must recognize the performer and offer encouragement with affirmational gestures. I wink at the mother when she looks behind her. She giggles at her fellow riders because of her baby’s fuss. I wink at her, slightly nod, and smile warmly; I acknowledge her effort. I learned this from the girl behind the counter at Skaggs. She quickly turns around—back to her baby.
Before I write, I tap my pad three times and clear my throat.
Yes. Quietly, meaningfully, professionally. It is my only word on the bus. Yes. The rest is sounds. Hmmmm tap tap tap Yes clear my throat chew on the cap write.
The bus groans creaks rocks shakes bumps hops pops vibrates breathes and drives. I lean my head on the window glass and rest my eyes. The bus massages my scalp, rubs my brain, quiets my mind. As my solid thoughts begin to loosen, I begin to drift and daydream. I often dream of buses.
I have many recurring dreams. In “My Mother the Vampire,” I am out killing bloodsuckers with my friends. We kill them with lilies. Larger than actual lilies, their petals rise and curve long and white with blackish not green veins. They are sticky and pregnant with yellow pollen. Getting a vampire to take a flower that will ultimately kill him isn’t as easy as it sounds. Vampires are suspicious of gifts. I always return to my childhood home (East 17th St) at the end of the day and find my mother in her floral nightgown on our old couch. She lies quite peacefully on its green cushions like she is taking a nap. Her small, even breaths are soothing. I can hear my brothers in the bedroom down the hall. There is a turntable in the room. A scratchy copy of The Beach Boys “Wouldn’t it be Nice?” is playing. A-side, Capitol Records. She slowly sits up and asks for a hug. I wake up.
There are other dreams like “Rest Stop Stall,” “Walking around School Naked,” and “All My Teeth are Falling Out.” I keep notes about dreams, too. My most recent recurring dream is “The Quiet Bus.” I get on a silver bus, like one of those mobile homes but more rectangular, and sit in the back. There is no sound. The bus glides around sharp corners and slides across treacherous potholes. There are large windows on the sides and in back to provide wonderful views. The bus never takes a red light and always accelerates. The driver wears thick, workman’s gloves and has to furiously turn the steering wheel with both hands—hand over hand over hand—to keep us on course. As my body succumbs to the increasing speed, I try to warn the five or six other passengers about possible dangers. My voice is so quiet. Whisper whisper whisper like scratching and thin, crumpling paper as we take on a hill. At its crest the bus leaves the ground. Silently floating across a city park, the driver announces a number of destinations: Bathroom, Toilet, Faucet, Paper, Whicker Hamper, Floor.
Buses are never really silent, though.
Saturday, June 12, 2004
one of many to come, excerpts from Harry's notebooks
Introduction to Cultural Anthropology