Mrs. Inman's Boarding House

By Seamus Muldoon, Himself
Copyright © 1997-2017
All Rights Reserved

It is Thanksgiving, 2009, and I am now of the age at which on days like this I actually pause to think of what I have to be thankful for. The list is long. I am strong and healthy just before my 72nd birthday, and thanks to some wonderful surgeons and the current state of medical technology in Houston, Texas, anything that goes haywire with me can be fixed, just like replacing parts on an old truck. I have most of a new neck, most of a new back titanium screws and all, a totally new titanium right shoulder, and Belinda is searching the Internet for other parts of my anatomy she would like to see upgraded.

Part of this holiday process is retrospective, as I could have ended up a lot less fortunate than I am. In this time of intense conflict, I also think of and give thanks for those who made the personal sacrifices so that I and everyone else could continue to enjoy the privileges we have in the United States. We all complain a lot about this or that, but were we to spend a few months in Iraq or Afghanistan, or anywhere else for that matter, we would loudly cry out to be back in the United States. I am working on a project in which it has vividly been brought home to me that there is an enormous difference in our first amendment freedom of speech rights compared to those of the people of England and Australia. They may be very nice places to visit, but their fundamental positions on this subject are much less forgiving. When you have a big mouth, like I do, you really do want to live in Texas.

Mrs. Inman’s boarding house was an experience of my youth that fits into this scenario. As I was thinking today of what I have to be thankful for, Mrs. Inman’s boarding house, Mrs. Inman herself, and the others with whom I ate meals there came flooding into my mind as a dramatis personae populating my emotions.

Mrs. Inman lost her husband in the Second World War and raised her children by herself. She was tough but loving; hard working and independent. There were almost no agencies in those days to which anyone in her circumstances could turn for assistance. Her children rarely knew comfort but always knew adequacy. She provided. There were almost no options for a widow woman with children and no education to speak of in Charleston back then. She was, in my mind, a biblical woman of valor, though I certainly didn’t think in those terms at the time.

I was 17 years old and the adopted child of comfortable Jewish parents. My parents didn’t want me to work. They thought of my working as a stain on their reputation, a sign that my father’s business might be failing. No other Jewish kids ever worked. Why should I? But everyone I knew who wasn’t Jewish did work every summer and many in the afternoons during the school years. My take on it was that they looked down on kids who didn’t work. To them work was the signature of their significance and necessary for their and their families’ way of living. Their income was turned over to their mothers in every instance I knew of. And since it was amongst them that I sought all my social relationships, I had difficulty with the notion that I should just “vacation” while they worked. Call it social pressure or whatever you like. I also had recollections of the time when my father talked me out of mowing lawns for $ 3 a pop on Saturdays, saying that I was wrecking his reputation as a local businessman. He promised that if I quit mowing lawns he would give me money. Stupidly, I listened to him. He provided less than he promised; I had to account for every penny; and I lost my customers. I had been earning almost ten dollars every Saturday and I quit for about half that. Stupid decision but a good lesson. When I could work on a Dr. Pepper truck, I was happy for the chance and would not have quit for any promise.

The local Dr. Pepper bottler, a Texas fellow by the name of McMinn, knew my father, and they shared work force. My dad’s business was heavier in winter and his was heavier in summer. Between the two of them, they kept a good force employed steadily all year round. I asked him for a job and he hired me, thinking that because I was Jewish I knew accounting. He thought that Jewish people knew all about accounting at birth. I don’t think he ever figured out that I had been adopted and wasn’t Jewish at birth. When he found out on day one that I hadn’t the foggiest notion about anything to do with accounting and that the summer job I wanted was working on a truck, he called my dad to ask if it was OK to keep me on. My dad said no it wasn’t, but I talked my way into being kept on. It was a great job, perfect for me. I rode with a driver and did all the heavy work. In the soft drink business in the mid 1950s in Charleston, my job consisted of loading the truck every evening, taking the cases of soft drinks into the stores, picking up cases of empties and loading them into the truck and unloading the cases of empties at day’s end. Fortunately for me, my hobbies had including weightlifting, so I could handle it. There were no fork lifts in those days. If there were fork lifts, none were owned by this company. A hand truck was the height of technology, and cases of product were lifted by hand – no roll ‘em off the truck racks either. You took everything on and off a truck one case at a time. I would give anything to look like that again today. There was no fat on me at all.

It was while working there that I met another man who also loved the mountains. I loved to go live in the mountains on camping and hiking opportunities. Slung over the back of my office chair is a holster with the Ruger 357 Blackhawk Magnum revolver I used to carry in those days. Maybe that is another item that caused my memories to be jogged in this direction this Thanksgiving. Everywhere I look nowadays there is something that stirs some story from my past.

The driver I worked with lived at Mrs. Inman’s boarding house, and that was about two miles from home. I would ride my bike over to Mrs. Inman’s, have breakfast for about twenty five cents and ride out with him to work. There were about a dozen or so people eating breakfast every morning at Mrs. Inman’s including her roomers and several regulars. Her breakfasts were real working men’s breakfasts. Everyone there each morning was going to do a full day’s work. Some of the people at breakfast were former prison inmates, including Henry Barber, the driver I worked with. Most of their crimes were larceny or burglary of some variety. No one had more than a high school education and a few less than that. The average wages of these people was roughly $ 40 per week. They were all paid in cash. None had a bank account. If you were a college grad with a good job in those days you might have made $ 100 a week. If you got hurt you lost your job. Vacation was not a word in their vocabulary. Sunday was their vacation.

All of them had been in the military. Maybe that is part of why Mrs. Inman’s boarding house comes into my mind this Thanksgiving, when so many of our best people are in combat in far away places making sacrifices that enable the rest of us to be secure. We are also going through extremely difficult economic times. Many more people are living hand to mouth today, doing almost anything for almost any wage trying to keep it together, and so often unable to do so despite their best efforts. This kind of struggle is the kind of struggle that the men at Mrs. Inman’s knew as their way of life. How could anyone not having to deal with that level of desperation not stop and give thanks right now?

Nobody said anything about my being Jewish. I suspect they simply didn’t care about it. If they knew anything about Jews, it was negative, and they all knew how to avoid trouble if possible. In high school the Jewish kids got called names and bounced around if they were afraid of confrontation. Easy marks always get harvested. In college when I visited my room mate’s family in New Jersey, the subject came up, but in the funniest way I had ever heard. Papa Maiorine was about the nicest man I had ever met in my life. I instantly loved him. He had a milk route, and I got up early to go ride with him on the route. He was Italian – Abruzzese – and most of the drivers working there were also Italian. They would say things to each other in Italian – not always, but mainly the old expressions that were linguistic shorthand for something. When I first showed up with him one morning he introduced me as “mio figlio il mazzo Cristi” – my son the Christ killer. I spoke a lot of Italian and it struck me not as insulting but as one of the funniest ways of introducing someone I had ever heard. Everyone cracked up about it and I am very happy that I did too. It would have been awful had I taken offense, as I know in my heart that he would never mean any offense toward me. It was just his sense of humor at work.

No matter how poor anyone might be in those days, we all smoked cigarettes. None of us knew the risks. It was something kids did on their way to manhood. I started smoking when I was eight years old, bumming cigarettes mostly and squirreling them away whenever my parents had a party. It was considered smart in those days to have cigarettes in containers around the house for your guests when you threw a party. I used to steal as many as I thought I could get away with. My parents went ballistic about my smoking, but I never quit or tried to quit. I knew not to do it at home, but once out the door that was the first thing I reached for. We smoked in high school. It was against the rules and we got gigged for it from time to time. My favorite brand was Camel cigarettes. They were pure, wall to wall, carcinogens and they tasted great. They turned your fingers yellow brown and everything you wore smelled like cigarettes. By the time I did quit smoking at age 35, I smoked at least three packs a day. If you shopped carefully, a pack of cigarettes was about 15 cents in those days. If you had a friend with privileges at the local military base PX they were a dime.

Coffee and a cigarette were one thing, not two. A Cigarette after a meal was the best dessert. When playing baseball, the first thing coming in off the field for our turn at bat was to light up. Beer and cigarettes were almost life’s greatest joy. A cigarette after sex was indescribably wonderful, although at 17 I got to enjoy that experience only rarely unless it was sex for one and a cigarette. Pool halls and cigarettes were an architectural feature. There was a song about dying and making Saint Peter wait while you smoked one last cigarette. “You can tell Saint Peter at the golden gate that you really hate to make him wait, but you gotta have another cigarette.” You tended to define yourself in terms of cigarette adverts. Everyone wanted to be a Marlboro Man. It made all the newspapers when the man in the advert died of lung cancer. There’s another thing I have to give thanks for – that I managed to quit smoking. The makers of Camel cigarettes regularly advertized that they sent thousands of cartons to our soldiers and sailors overseas during World War Two. When someone is trying to kill you, you don’t give much thought to maybe not smoking anymore because you might get sick from it some day.

Well, after all this maudlin reminiscence I got to go watch the HEB Grocery Company Thanksgiving parade during breakfast with Belinda. Those poor bastards in New York have to make do with watching the multi million dollar extravaganza Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, with enormous inflated floats and $ 15,000,000 worth of anti terrorist security resources spread along the parade route.

Here in Houston we get to watch the H E Butts Grocery Company parade march its own self right down Fannin Street, replete with go carts driven by costumed Mexicans commemorating the opening of the New HEB SuperMercado Spanish grocery market; the Brahmadoras, a fat chick drill team from Belleville, Texas where they raise Brahma cattle; assorted local groups from some of our many militia units; a cart pulled by a tractor from the Sarah Palin home for brain injured children chock full of inmates from the home waving Texas flags; one of the gubernatorial candidates, Kinky Friedman and his rockabilly band The Texas Jewboys (yeah that’s the name of the group – look it up if you don’t believe me); a conservative Republican group supporting our present Governor for re-election on a truck depicting one of his secessionist tea bagging parties that the Gov likes to throw at every photo op where he advocates that Texas secede from the United States; several church busses with appropriate far right religious messages on them expressing opposition to evolution being taught in schools, sex education that includes birth control, and health care reform; the Anisse Parker for Mayor car; and the WingNut society with its “We Don’t Need a Lesbian Mayor for Houston” message. There are also assorted parade animal groups with poop scooper franchisees following after them shoveling up and trying to recruit new franchisees from amongst the crowd of onlookers.

Lord, why are you so good to me?

By Seamus Muldoon, Himself
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