Monday, November 30, 2009

Trumpets and Turnips

After more than a year in Humbug I had a lot of time to study their protocols. I was still mostly confounded but I did manage to figure a few things out, particularly about the highest order faux pas of speaking your mind. It just didn’t seem possible that anyone could spend a lifetime not expressing themselves without their head exploding. To this end, Humbuggers had developed an elaborate set of passive-aggressive exceptions to this rule.

In the Humbug mind, you were not really speaking your mind if you weren’t speaking directly to the person on your mind. For this reason, it was acceptable to express strong opinions when in the company of no more than four close friends – none of whom was included or affected by your opinion. Usually this was done in a tight huddle around a table covered with coffee mugs and torn sugar packets. It was important to implement this form of expression in a raspy, hissing whisper so as to give the impression that you really didn’t want other people to hear what you were saying. Such exchanges precluded the speaker from being considered ‘opinionated’ because the exchange was considered ‘just gossip’. Gossiping was a considerable pastime in Humbug, and helped me to understand their strong desire to meet in public places for coffee.

Furthermore, you were not ‘speaking your mind’ if you didn’t directly address the person or the issue which you were criticizing. This exclusion acquitted those who, for instance, walked by Jeffrey hissing, “Next thing you know, they’ll be marrying pigs and chickens.” Jeffrey knew all too well that this was a local way of criticizing the United Church policy of performing same sex marriages, but if they weren’t speaking to him directly and didn’t specifically mention his church then it would have actually been a bigger faux pas for him to confront them. By the very act of confronting them he would have been addressing the person involved directly and making his disapproval clear – and that would have made HIM ‘opinionated’.

Perhaps the most ridiculous passive-aggressive outlet they had was a page in the Humbug Herald called ‘Trumpets and Turnips’. The little column allowed people to ridicule any person or business in Humbug as long as they didn’t explicitly name that person or business and, to take the passive-aggressive approach to superlative measure, the contributors name was never published either. The most appealing aspect of these Trumpets and Turnips, in the Humbugger mind, was that they further fueled or corroborated gossip. In my mind, it turned the local newspaper into nothing more than an official gossip column. This published gossip served in place of graffiti and further corroborated the outsider assessment of the local newspaper as a colouring book. They should have sold it with crayons.

If someone gave a turnip to the ‘local plumber who overcharges senior citizens for house calls’ then the town would be abuzz for the rest of the week. Every single plumber spent hours looking over their previous week’s schedule of house calls, looking for elderly customers who may have been offended and trying to figure out which of their children or grandchildren might have had the nerve to pass along this turnip. The local citizens, in turn, would spend their week trying to figure out which plumber was overcharging old ladies. The resulting gossip left everyone feeling a little bit of anger rather than allowing the two parties that were directly involved to deal with the greater turmoil of direct confrontation. In a way, this mechanism acted as a sort of communal catharsis, allowing everyone to share the burden of the emotions involved in what would have otherwise been a much more focused expression of opinion.

This rather bizarre set of workarounds to self expression ensured that everyone had a small portal through which to vent, but never really allowed anyone to completely relieve their burdens. This left the average Humbugger rather pent up and frustrated but at the same time kept them from blowing their tops. Since it had taken me a year to decode just this much of the complex set of Humbug protocol, I wondered just how much more there must be to the full tome of unwritten rules. I realized, though, that I wouldn’t live long enough to completely decipher the Humbug Great Wall of Hieroglyphs.

It had been almost a year, and my sales were almost identical to when I had started. Although I had been successful in dramatically increasing the ratio of food to coffee, and sales had increased a bit over the summer, there was just no way a little cafeteria-service bistro was ever going to be successful in a such a small town. There wasn’t a viable going concern to sell, so my best option was to auction the equipment to retrieve what equity I could. I decided on the final day of operations and put up a sign.

“I’ld like to thank those who have offered their support, but I regretfully announce that The Humbug Bistro will be closing on February XX, XXXX.”

As I posted the sign on the front door, I felt a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders. It was hard to watch that bicycle lose momentum and finally tip onto the pavement, but the anxiety of watching it swerve down the block, wondering what was going to happen, was finally over. I was going to take a bit of a financial hit from the closure but I felt well compensated by the lessons I had learned. I wondered if I might even be able to get somewhere writing a book about the experience.

The next Tuesday, after Jeffrey had switched on the ‘OPEN’ sign and reversed the door signage to say ‘OPEN’, he came back into the kitchen and said, “Hey, boss – you’re really going to be closing down?”

“Yup,” I replied.

“For real?”

“For real.”

“Well, boss,” he continued, “You mistyped ‘I’d’ on the sign. You have an ‘l’ in there.”

“Actually, Jeffrey, that’s how I always type it. It’s an antiquated way of contracting ‘I would’ that I guess has fallen out of favour. My grade school teachers were very old and pounded that spelling into my head.”

“So you always type it like that?”

“Yeah,” I replied.

Jeffrey’s expression turned a bit sour, and he seemed to be contemplating my spelling idiosyncrasy far more deeply than I could readily understand.

“Something wrong, Jeffrey?” I asked.

“I just noticed that spelling in a turnip, today,” he replied.

“Ah, so you spotted it,” I chuckled.

“I don’t think it’s funny,” he scolded.

The turnip of which he spoke was a little snippet I had snuck into the local paper, saying, “I’ld like to give a turnip to the local restaurant that scoffed when I found a hair in my soup.”

“What’s wrong, Jeffey?” I asked.

“Heather, this is just about the only restaurant in town that doesn’t serve soup.”

“What happened to ‘boss’?”

“I’m not sure I want to call you ‘boss’ right now,” he scorned.

“Oh, don’t take it so damn seriously, Jeffrey.”

“Did you really find a hair in your soup at a restaurant?” he asked, giving me the benefit of the doubt.

“Of course not, but that gets people talking. They won’t let you print the name of the restaurant so everyone in town starts yammering on about which restaurant it must be. In the end, because I don’t serve soup, it always leads to a little kick in sales.”

“So you did this on purpose and you’ve done it before!” he exclaimed.

“Yeah, why not? It’s ridiculous to let things like that be published anonymously so why not take advantage of it?”

“How long have you been doing this,” he demanded.

“I don’t know, maybe eight months.”

“That’s horrible!”

“It’s just business, Jeffrey.”

“No, it’s not just business. People in town take those damn trumpets and turnips very seriously!” he barked.

“Damn, Jeffrey! Take it easy,” I lamented.

“This puts me in a very bad position. I can’t know about this and let people go on thinking that someone actually found a hair in their soup at a local restaurant.”

“Then pretend you don’t know about it.”

“I just can’t do that.”

“You know, Jeffrey, it’s little kicks in sales like that that actually pay your wages. The place doesn’t make any money you know.”

“Then I would be better off without those wages.”

“So you’re quitting?”

“I think I have to.”

“Well if you quit then there is no reason to tell people about the turnip. It’s not like you’ll be benefiting from it.”

“I can’t keep quiet about it. I’m sorry.”

“You know, Jeffrey, telling people about it won’t make life better for them. You don’t know what sort of a can of worms you’ll be opening once they lose faith in their little passive-aggressive public bulletin board.”

“That’s not something I can concern myself with. It was you who tainted the turnips.”

I just burst out laughing when he said that. As I laughed I said, “So I’ve blasphemed the sanctity of the turnip, have I?”

“It’s not funny!” he barked.

All I could do was laugh. I couldn’t believe he took this issue so seriously, although I always knew he was too honest for his own good. As I continued to laugh I could see the anger well up in him and it just fueled my laughter even more. Finally he couldn’t contain his anger anymore and he began shouting at me.

“I’m going to have to tell people about this. This is fraud, or something. People get very upset about those damn turnips; they take them very seriously. Worse yet, because you start them with that ‘I’ld’, they are going to be able to figure out which ones you put in the paper. I’m sorry, but I can’t keep this quiet.”

He was so upset that I managed to stifle my laughter as I said, “Oh well, Jeffrey, I guess you have to do what you have to do.”

He marched out the door, never to be heard from again. I was quite startled at just how rigid his moral convictions really were and I really just couldn’t believe that he saw absolutely no humour in it. I began to wonder just how many people would go through back issues of the Humbug Herald looking for ‘I’ld’s. I could never have imagined.

Word spread like wildfire and within a day the local library didn’t have a single back issue left. By the next day there was a line-up outside the Humbug Herald’s office; every single person demanding a full year’s worth of back issues. The publisher was overwhelmed and began doing full runs of every issue as fast as they could. The publisher was furious, although I thought they would have been happy about all the extra sales and circulation.

The hatred towards me was astounding, although my regular customers found the whole thing hilarious. A petition went around asking people to sign up and boycott my ‘coffee shop’. The funniest part about the boycott was that the people who signed up were all people who had never actually eaten at my restaurant in the first place. I even found a note on my windshield which read, “GET OUT OFF TOWN!”

If nothing else, at least I had somewhat unified the Humbuggers. Nothing brings a town together like a common enemy, especially when that enemy is an outsider. I was most likely leaving anyway, so I was quite willing to take on this hatred if that was what it had to come down to. The real problems started when they forgot just how much they hated me and began to turn on each other.

Long before my authorship of particular turnips had been revealed, several inaccurate accusations had been made due to the little snippets. Just for fun, I had been salting some of the turnips with bits of gossip that I had heard from my old nemesis, coffee row. As it turned out, because I had used some morsels of real gossip, several people had been wrongly accused of being either author or subject of these turnips.

The increased pressure caused by these allegations, compounded by the lack of direct emotional vents, had created a critical mass of sorts. The wrongly accused began to actually directly confront their accusers and Humbug was not ready for that. Brother turned on brother, cousins began family feuds, and even some business relationships fell apart. For this, I felt terrible. Being hated by a townsfolk that I would never see again was one thing, but I had never meant to turn them against one another.

After about a week of this turmoil, things seemed to settle down a bit. I hoped that the great eruption might have provided some relief of the underlying pressure of a people who took things way too seriously. After all, these little turnips had been there for years, if not decades. The next week, no one had the nerve to submit a turnip, except for one little passive-aggressive comment about my fictional submissions – authored by ‘anonymous’.