Swearing Is Its Own Reward

or

It’s As Cold As a Foreigner Song Out Here

There were grain elevators between the day rate parking lots and the train tracks by Mariucci arena on campus. I saw them every day when I drove to campus. The University recently demolished them to make way for some new abomination – possibly a stadium. Sarah, Chandler, and Donald had plans to go photograph the elevators first and they kindly invited me along at a point when even Sarah barely knew me.

“Hooray!” I said, relishing the opportunity to hang out with such charming and intelligent people, even knowing that doing so would mash the buttons on all of my intellectual insecurities.

Since going back to school I have been trying to do “art” things. I want museums, galleries, and openings. I’m reasonably able to get to the concerts that I like, but the art world is daunting — it is either predicated upon a broad knowledge and understanding of art (oh, look at the brushwork in this, evocative of the firmness of hand that so and so displayed in his early period) or just knowing the right group of people in the first place (oh, look, there’s Will — have you seen his Work on the futility of postmodern interpretations of — oh! Look, there’s Susan from the — ). Okay, there’s also the folky art and craft things, which sometimes have the sort of unspeakable horrors of positive thinking that make me want to pluck out my own eyes and smash them onto the table so that I never have to see another display of misshapen wire and faux jade.

Now that I have indicted practically the entire art world for imagined crimes against me, I can mention that other part of art that I envy — those good folks who make spectacular art and live normal lives without seeming pretentious or annoying. So there was Chandler at the booksale, idly illuminating a wonderful poster. Idly. Illuminating. Well, maybe coloring, but still. The handmade books in front of her were pockets of wonder. I had asked Sarah how I looked as we were walking in — her verdict had been “hot,” so I kept flashing my smile while inwardly cowering. Being Sarah’s trophy was an easy façade. Most days I can pull charm out of my pocket and juggle it effortlessly: look how polite Jesse is, but oh, he’s a little naughty. What fun!

Sarah and I had been kindly invited for breakfast at Donald’s home the morning we were to go shoot.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but as has been stated, I will eat anything, so I wasn’t too worried, especially after hearing their Thanksgiving plans which included goose and a half dozen other kinds of amazing. As it turned out, breakfast was simple and so close to an ideal breakfast that I could have simply gone home and slept the rest of the day without feeling like my day had been wasted.

As we pulled up to Donald’s house, Sarah recognized Chandler’s car — and so did I, for it was a blue 2006 Subaru Impreza sedan with a manual transmission. It looked a little naked without the small wing on mine, but I had a brief urge to try my key in it anyway.

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Opening the door to Donald’s home created a wormhole through space and time. Sarah and I were drawn through into Great Britain from the late forties — except for the Burl Ives album playing on the turntable — circa late fifties. The glorious smells of pancakes and bacon filled the air. We unloaded our photo gear and rushed the kitchen.

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If you don’t know Donald, you might need a little help imagining him in his well used but neat apron. He wore a green vest of roughly woven fabric over a button up shirt. He slipped in and out of accents and voices while effortlessly flipping perfect pancakes. He had already finished an impressive stack of pancakes, and more took shape in his pan as the rest of us sat down to eat.

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“I hope that you’re okay with meat,” said Chandler as she pushed the bacon towards me.
“My only problem with that bacon there is that there isn’t quite enough of it. Next time I’ll come with six pounds or so as a hostess gift.”

Reclining Donald

The banter was witty all around. I had a little trouble keeping up, which might surprise you, but honestly, if the topic doesn’t revolve around bowel movements and other noise making activities I’m just not prepared. I blame my spotty education after high school — too dependent on my random whims and the equally random bounty of the internet, which is simply unable to deliver the great classics of literature in small enough bites that my ever shortening attention span will allow me to study and digest them.

Donald can recite the Jacob Marley monologue from Dickens’s Christmas Carol, whereas I even had to look up the name of Scrooge’s old partner on the internet. Indeed, I couldn’t remember that the book was called The Christmas Carol — it is only though the wonder and magic of Google’s search engine that I was able to find “dickens scrooge” and then dickens christmas carol characters. Yes, I just admitted that Google is how I access my long term memory, which is entirely internet based. If I were ever to go to the wilderness I would surely lose the ability to speak, much less wipe myself. I’ll leave the googling for wiping instructions to you. I don’t want to know what you find, either. Gross.

Donald treated to a reading from a Christmas Carol, with new voices for each character, including the pitiful Tiny Tim.

“God bless us, bla bla bla,” Tim said, leaning on his crutch and coughing — now doomed to live out his years a twisted wreck of a man, rather than slipping into the painful but sweet release of death. O! Scrooge, if only those wretched spirits could have shown you Tim’s lonely existence. Alive, but struggling even to draw breath in weak lungs, and now forever a slave to morphine’s bitter happiness. Tim turned to a life of crime, beating prostitutes with his one good arm — cruelly strong from doing the work of two arms and a leg.

“God bless my bitches, every one. Now where’s my tuppence? Daddy needs his medicine.”

Breakfast ambled its way into our stomachs.

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I had thought that it would be a road trip to a grain elevator somewhere, but instead it was to a location right on campus. The elevators composed a gray, Soviet-looking monstrosity that attracted graffiti and tumbling flocks of pigeons. The intervening weeks had also brought winter to bear. The temperature had dropped dozens of degrees and specks of ice blew by in grim parody of snow.

We loaded up Sarah’s car with photo gear and headed off in the direction of the University. Parking was a bitch. It was cold. Suddenly winter had woken up and decided to freeze the nuts off of everyone who bothered to go outside, yet we were marching out into the blustery winds. Our quest for free parking left us blocks away. At first I thought that my Carhardt and the task of lugging around my own meager collection of camera gear would be enough to keep me warm, but the rapidly declining temperatures in my buttocks soon informed me that I would have to shoot pictures at a dead run to avoid hypothermia.

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Sarah and Donald found a lee in which they could set up her big camera on her expensive tripod and take long exposures. Chandler and I roamed around the back of the elevators — as much in the lee and out of the restricted areas as possible. I burned up two rolls of film but slowed down before finishing the third. Changing film in my camera fringed my fingers with frost.

Eventually Chandler and I ceased our wanderings and joined Sarah and Donald in the lee. I warmed my face on Sarah’s a bit before we packed her things and walked back towards Dinkytown. This time we were walking directly into the wind. Sarah and I huddled together and moved in lockstep, our arms entangled and our faces set in grim determination. Chandler and Donald walked together nearby, their location indicated by a steady stream of expletives.

“Fuck fuck fuckity fuck shit shit shit goddamn,” Chandler said. Her words sounded rubbery and muffled, as though her lips were already freezing into numbness and my head were wrapped in plentiful but insufficient layers of hats and hoods.

“What possible good can come out of language like that?” asked Donald through his scarf. I looked back over my shoulder in his direction and spit out a mouthful of my own scarf before hollering into the wind.

“Swearing is it’s own reward!” My words were carried away by the biting wind. They blew over the remaining elevators and along the Transitway. They blew over Saint Anthony Park and across Saint Paul before catching in a tree outside a pet store in Maplewood. The following spring a hard rain washed them out of the tree right as a patron came by to track them into the store, where a parrot found them and started reciting them to visitors.

“Squawwwwk! Swearing is it’s own reward! Don’t kill me, don’t kill me, please, I have a family! Three children! The money is under the monkey cages! Oh god! Oh god! Nooooooo!” the parrot said daily. It was an excellent mimic, and winter had ended in a grisly unsolved murder and robbery.

We made it half way back to Dinkytown before making use of a University arena to warm up. We milled about in the lobby until I found myself looking at the shorts on the women playing tennis.

“Those are nice shorts,” I thought to myself before coming to. Cold had impaired my judgement. I was a leering old man in a tattered coat that looked a bit like I had taken it off of the corpse of a homeless man. I kissed Sarah to make up for it and because I wanted to kiss her just in general. Like everything else she does, she’s good at it.

We returned to the outdoors and inched our way to the cafe where we were to regroup. Hours spent reading “Drama In Real Life” articles in Reader’s Digest flashed through my head. Icy winds cut through our clothing. It was death’s icy breath on our faces. If we didn’t get coffee soon we would surely perish. Thankfully, Cafe 421 was near enough that we could drag our legless bodies into the door and — oh. Uh, sorry.

Donald had declared that the cafe was the only place where he could count on eating as well as he did at home, and that was all the recommendation that I needed. Donald has a pantry. I have wanted a pantry for years. I’m not jealous of his life at all. No, not one bit.

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Everyone ordered soup but me — I was as hungry as a conspiracy of ravens. I ate a dubiously cajun sandwich. We warmed up — but none so fast as I. I was down to a t-shirt and practically sweating amidst a table full of sweaters.

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Just as I thought that we were going to merely ferry Donald and Chandler home, they suggested that we stop in for hot toddies. Booze? Booze? Finally, a topic on which I have piles and piles of material. Except — I didn’t want to play that character: the boozehound, the drinker looking to go pro, the sorcerer loading his blood with alcohol to attract the attention of the dead.

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Donald squeezed oranges and hooked us up with brandy. The toddies were unexpectedly delicious.

Then, someone suggested that we sing christmas carols. Sarah sat down to the piano and revealed that she is a masterful accompanist. She picked practically random songs out of a red hymnal and played through them. Donald pulled out a concertina and sang. Chandler sang on the spot harmonies. They were all so nonchalant about it, like it was no big deal that they could pick up on the spur of the moment and have music simply erupt from them. I had known that Sarah had played the oboe somewhat seriously, but the three of them together had gone past casual singing to the first rehearsals of a serious christmas pageant.

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Now, I’m not much for christmas or organized celebrations thereof, but this was so nice that I couldn’t help but want to join in. At least I knew the melody and first verse of most of the songs, but I had trouble reading the fine print of the hymnal, so after the first verse I would just trail off.

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Assuming that I knew the melody in the first place. Right. And then, even when I did know the words and the melody, I’d be singing and all of a sudden feel like I was in the wrong octave. Since when did the carols climb that high or stoop so low in pitch? I refilled my toddy with less toddy and more brandy and soldiered on through the panic and terror of singing in public. Having Sarah there helped — I could put my hand on her shoulder and feel less overwhelmed.

I suppose that I could take a break from whining about my own anxieties to mention that Chandler sang especially beautifully, Donald sang well and hammered out some fine concertina action, and Sarah played hymns from sight like she’d been spending every Sunday in the organ bench at church. Thankfully she hasn’t, but, all the same, that girl can accompany!

By the time we ran out of steam for singing, I was pretty wiped out from forcing a smile to my face. I had even considered forgoing the toddy in favor of straight brandy. Indeed, I had come close: my last slug of toddy had only the barest taste of orange juice.

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Eventually things wound down and we went home.

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I’ll have to take another picture of the smoking pile of rubble. Or something.

5 Responses to “Swearing Is Its Own Reward ”

  1. I read it all and wanted more!

    Mr. Mullan has many gifts and writing is definitely one of them.

  2. Swearing is, indeed, its own reward.

    Maybe next time I’ll sing beautiful profanities in a hymn to Satan or something.

    You’re very flattering, and a very good writer. Thank you.

  3. Lisa: flattery will get you everywhere.

    Mome-rath: I don’t waste flattery where it isn’t deserved, so, uh, any time!

  4. Mome-rath: also, why waste profanities on Satan? Sing the profanities in a hymn to profanity!

  5. I’m just hoping that flattery will ensure you take out the garbage tonight.

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