Monday, November 30, 2009

The Flintstone Whistle

While making the purchase arrangements for my restaurant I had traveled to Humbug frequently. It hadn’t occurred to me, however, that I hadn’t actually spent an entire day there. The first full day that I spent in Humbug was the day I took possession of the equipment and location. That was also the first day that I began to learn of the rigid routines adhered to by Humbuggers.

Taking a break from my cleaning and planning, I stepped out the back door of the restaurant to have a cigarette and to survey my new back alley. Across the alley I saw a stack of plywood crates behind the undertaker’s shop. It dawned on me that the crates were about the right size to contain coffins. Then it dawned on me that that was exactly what they contained. I found it strange that they were piled up in the alley that way.

Suddenly a deafening blast came from some sort of siren and I nearly had a heart attack. It was loud and it was long – just a roaring long wail that seemed to go on forever. I was soon to learn that this happened every day at noon. Suddenly people emerged from the back doors of most of the other shops, got into their cars and tried to back into the alley simultaneously. There was a lot of jostling around with some people waving others on but everyone being much more polite about the fiasco than might be observed in the city. I also noted that there were almost no pedestrians at all. In a town so small it seemed odd that every single person had driven to work.

It was this daily stampede for lunch that gave me the idea to call this noon horn the 'Flintstone Whistle’. I imagined Mr. Slate reaching out the window to pull the tail on a giant bird that let out this horrible scream, followed by every single person in town screaming, “Yabba Dabba Doo!” All of this, followed by a stampede of remarkably polite people racing for lunch. I wondered if they had ever considered just wearing wrist watches.

One day, while playing around with the espresso machine, I looked out the front window and saw some municipal workers doing some sort of road repair. Just like in the city, they put up sawhorses, wore reflective vests, and two men stood idly by, watching a third man ply his craft with a shovel. I looked down at my espresso just as the Flintstone Whistle blew. I looked back out the front window and all three men had vanished. The only evidence that they had ever been there was the shovel – all alone and rotating in mid air.

Humbuggers are so conditioned to the Flintstone Whistle that they can’t bring themselves to stop for lunch without its permission. This makes going for lunch quite convenient for all of Humbug’s non-Humbuggers. You can walk into any restaurant at ten to twelve and find it almost completely deserted. It’s wonderful to walk into a restaurant, chose any table you want, place your order, and have your food in front of you before a single member of the lunch rush crowd comes barreling through the door.

One day, during the renovations, I offered to buy the contractors lunch. They were very enthusiastic until I suggested we leave immediately. One of them said, “But the whistle hasn’t gone yet.” I replied, “Exactly!” I waited for this to sink in, but abstract concepts just didn’t seem to ‘sink in’ to Humbuggers. I said, “If we leave now we can have our food ordered before the lunch rush starts.” Another one of them said, “But the whistle hasn’t gone yet.” I replied, “Exactly!” I waited some more.

Finally I told the men that if they wanted a free lunch then they had to follow me immediately. Again, one of them said, “But the whistle hasn’t gone yet.” I pointed out that if they quit fifteen minutes early and then returned fifteen minutes early then they would still only be taking an hour for lunch but they would be saving themselves a lot of time and frustration. Yet once more, one of them said, “But the whistle hasn’t gone yet.” I dined alone.

The number of businesses that closed for the noon hour was astounding. Even the banks seemed incapable of running staggered lunch breaks and usually only had a couple of tellers left to handle the crowds of people paying bills and cashing cheques at lunch. City Hall locked it’s doors at noon as well. I had never witnessed anything like it before in my life.

In almost every town I had ever lived in, the elementary school children were let out ten or fifteen minutes before noon so that those who went home for lunch could do so before the noon rush hour traffic started. In Humbug, however, the children couldn’t leave their desks until that damn whistle blew.

I asked no fewer than a dozen Humbuggers why the Flintstone Whistle went off seven days a week, and how long it had been doing so. The only answer I ever got, verbatim, was, “That’s the noon whistle.” This was one of the first things about the town to creep me out - and I had a pile of coffins across the alley from my restaurant.