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The Great Mundane

There’s a ragtag band of misfits and private-militia maniacs headquartered in the Army-Navy store down the street from my office, and they’re plotting their revenge even as we speak—that’s why I don’t have a cell phone. Oh, plus, the No. 18 bus drivers (8:52 and 9:12 AM) would get lonely.

I’ve got nothing against the cell phone, mind you; honestly, it’d come in handy. I understand its utility and often wish I had one. I’d return home with the proper groceries, true. I’d know when my friends changed plans at the last minute and left one bar for another. But think of all I’d miss. I’d be tethered to the home broadcast, in traffic jams and idle moments I’d be connected to the network of my routine and its benign dictatorship: Don’t forget the baby wipes; we’re going to the matinee instead; what’s going on with you, here’s what’s up with me. . . . And I’d have been bent over my phone rather than scanning strangers, sidewalks and storefronts while stopped at red lights. I’d have missed the sign in the window of the Army-Navy store that tipped me off to a secret war.

Taped over a lengthy jagged crack running from one corner nearly to the other was a cardboard sign scrawled with an angry legend: “First we fix—then you pay!” Can you picture them, the proprietors, rifling through their stock, gearing themselves up in surplus and souvenirs—jodhpurs, night-vision goggles, side-zip boots, bayonets—readying themselves for some freaky A-Team vigilantism? I could. One of them—an ectomorph with a valiant attempt of a mustache and a limp (from a childhood accident, he’d always been a clumsy kid, or maybe he had a club foot)—would be the leader, just by dint of his passion. No one fucks with the Fox. He’d make diagrams, and maybe devise a secret handshake—or, better yet, a mathematical cipher for encryption that no one but no one could break. He’d done so much research.

Then the light changed.

Or, I’d have been busy making plans for lunch or after-work drinks when I boarded the bus, and I’d have missed the driver’s question: “How old are you?”

“Uh, I’m 34,” I responded, a little tentatively, wondering if I had to sit in some special section of the bus reserved for Gen-Xers, an irony-and-Simpson’s-quotes zone in the back.

“Yeah? Thirty-four, huh? So, how’s that going?”

It was like a scene in a bad film. In a movie, that kind of obvious setup for explication would ring false: It’s either too convenient if the explication actually follows or too purposely odd if it doesn’t. A scene like that is never believable—but, in this case, it’s nevertheless true.

That’s the great beauty of wandering without the link back to familiarity, without the implicit dramatic throughline of your own life’s details. In a film, if there’s a guy with an eye patch, an outrageous accent or an unlikely prosthesis, you want, you expect, to be told why: How does it serve the plot, how does it advance the story or contribute to our understanding of the character? Then someone like David Lynch comes along, refuses to play the game in accordance with its conventions, includes details gratuitously and is hailed as some surrealist wunderkind. When, in fact, life—daily, boring, lived life—is odder by far. If we pay attention to the unexplained, the peripheral, the excerpted life of others—even, or especially, at the most mundane level—-the world around us becomes mythic (and that’s what myths are anyway, right? Colorful and engaging explanations in the face of an overwhelming and ultimately unknowable reality). There’s no difference between metaphor and reality; the plausible trumps the true.

The guy at the magazine racks at the bookstore, the seemingly windburned guy with the overstuffed duffel bag and the soaking wet and frayed pant cuffs? Is he just killing time waiting for an open washer at the Laundromat? Is he a traveler, a hobo? If he is, what magazine will he pick up? Which will he eyeball more hungrily, Maxim or Car & Driver? What if it’s Granta or The Paris Review? You’ll have to switch gears—and stories—midstream.

What about the girl at the end of the bar applying for the job that she’s already been told by the bartender doesn’t exist (let’s not mention your insider’s knowledge that her paychecks will likely bounce). Is she a flat-broke student living on Ramen and generic cigarettes? A single mom recently transplanted to the region to escape a bayou-bred husband with a penchant for zydeco and cocaine? Is she doing it to fulfill the requirements of her unemployment? Is she a gas huffer? Is she a Barbara Ehrenreich wanna-be sniffing around for exploitative work environments?

And the guy leaning crookedly on the liquor store door, howling at the peace-rally marchers, “Go home, you commie motherfuckers!” What’s with that guy? A veteran from a time when it was a love-it-or-leave-it America? Or, was he left by his Korean war bride because of his binge drinking, and now, in Grapefruit Mad Dog-inspired fits of displaced anger and externalized self-reproach, he voices his venom at the slightest provocation?

Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Montaigne said, “Each man bears the entire form of man’s estate.” The Roman playwright Terence said, “I am human; nothing human is alien to me.” That’s what I’ve been told, anyway. But, honestly, that’s just stuff I’ve read. This I know for sure though: The guy teetering in front of the liquor store yelled, “Go home, you commie motherfuckers.” Really, what’s with that guy?

—John Rodat

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