Usually, I find the programming on NPR to be uplifting. Not always because of its content, mind you, but because of its pragmatism. I find it to be infinitely reasonable and that, dear reader, is uplifting indeed. Today, however, as I drove toward the local bakery for coffee, I found myself crestfallen. My mood dashed by- of all things- a book review for the new novel from writer Mohsin Hamid entitled, How to Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia.
Ostensibly a self help novel and written in the second person (Oh glory of glories! Literary fiction with a socially conscious message!), the author raises the main character (referred to as “you”) through an impoverished childhood, a rough and tumble adolescence (in which “you” must get out of the country and into the city for opportunity’s sake), and finally through an education and apprenticeship to eventually become, you guessed it, “filthy rich”.
What depressed me in all of this was not the story itself, but rather, the author’s take on rural economies. “…right now there are billions of people who are migrating from the world’s villages and countrysides into the world’s big cities. …they’re doing it because the rural economy all over the world is collapsing. Farmers and people who make a living from the land are finding it impossible to survive. So the first step is to get out of that place. Come to the city where there are opportunities.”
Allow me, as ever, to take the long way to explain myself.
I moved to Austin, Texas after graduating college. I did so to pursue music in all of its forms- live performance, connecting with other musicians, recording, etc. I felt that I absolutely, unequivocally had to get out of the small town in which I had gone to college because the opportunities to make music there were paltry at best. No one was making original music on a scale or of an ambition that satisfied me. It’s a tourist town (and an expensive place to live, at that) and so, a musician must sell themselves out playing “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Margaritaville” for visitors in order to pay their rent and bankroll the winter months when the gig pickings are slim. I’m not judging them for it. I understand why they do it. But that sort of thing doesn’t interest me in the least.
Simply put, what I found in my newly adopted city astonished me. To say “I play an instrument” or “I write songs” in Austin is like saying “I wear clothes.” People are neither impressed nor surprised by the sentence. Mostly, they wonder why you said anything in the first place. Of course you play an instrument, stupid. Of course you write songs. Who doesn’t? What they really want to know is, “How many instruments do you play and how well?” and, more importantly, “Would it behoove me financially to enter into a working musical partnership with you?”
The dearth of ambition I found in the small tourist town was the wealth of it I found in Austin.
So I did what I came to do. I made music, met people and entrenched myself thoroughly in the music culture. I saw bands- saw a lot of bands. I made a few recordings, I played open mic nights, I sold some CD’s, I jammed with people. I played drums for some bands. I started making the rounds. I started frequenting particular coffee shops, drinking establishments and clubs. I made a small group of acquaintances through whom I was able to schedule more gigs, studio sessions and jams.
Of course, the last paragraph was in past tense, which can only mean one of two things:
1.) I am no longer participating in any of those activities.
2.) I am no longer living in Austin.
If you guessed number two, congratulations! You’re our big winner.
It happened suddenly. The realization that no matter how many times I went into the same places- whether recording studios, bands or venues- no one could remember my name. They could remember what I did, which was nice enough. “Hey! You’re the guy with that “Detective” song!” (Flattering.) “Big sticks in the studio!” (Unsettling.) But they never remembered my name. In studios, I was “Hey drummer, could you play a bit louder?” In bands, I was, “Hey dude!” In bars, clubs and coffee shops, I was, “What do you want?”
I remembered their names. Made a point of it. Gabby at the coffee shop. Richard in the studio. Shawn at the open mic. I still remember their names. But they did not (do not) remember mine. This unsettled me.
“How are you today, sir?”
I moved back to Durango, as close to a hometown as a person with an itinerant childhood and divorced parents who live on opposite sides of the country can have, in the early part of 2011. Ostensibly, I moved back for a job teaching high school literature. But, I also moved back to be able to ask how this man, who co-owns the local bakery, is today as I walk up to the double glass doors where he is taking down local events posters and hanging new ones for political rallies, power to the people movements, bike to work days and local bands’ show posters. It is that sort of a place.
He gives me an indifferent glare.
“I’m not sure yet,” he barks.
I laugh. I find this answer hysterical. Better even, than the answer I have learned to expect from my grandmother who says simply, “Okay, I think.”
The man’s glare does not change, though he is puzzled by my amusement. His steel wool hair juts out from beneath a well-worn cap that once clearly bore the embroidered logo of an outdoors company. Now, in true Durango style, that logo is marred and so dingy from miles of hiking or biking or skiing or running that it is intelligible only to those of us familiar with it. He wears rose colored John Lennon glasses and his t-shirt is dusted with the ghosts of flour and yeast.
He gives a quarter smile, tilting his head to one side as I glide through the door.
I love this bakery. I visit it every morning on my way to work. Apologies to other esteemed establishments, but Bread’s coffee is the best in town, bar none. Theirs is the sort of brew that removes paint, that cleans carburetors, that puts hair on chests. Starbucks aficionados peel back in terror at the very smell of it. It is exactly what I prefer- bristly, gritty, dark and bracing. Not, now that I think about it, unlike this man’s personality.
Truth be told, I love this bakery and its wares so much that I have become something of a disciple spreading its gospel. I have converted the vast majority of the people in my life- my boss, my parents, my friends and even my students.
“Talley!” they shout, upset with me when I sip the black sludge and shudder with delight. “It’s bad enough that we can smell it! You don’t have to sigh with every sip!”
They’d call me an asshole if they could. But such things are frowned upon at a Christian school.
“What can I get for you?” the woman at the counter asks. There is bluegrass on the speakers and the place is filled with the regular crowd of people who fit into one of the following three categories:
1.) Middle-aged yuppy, usually accompanied by at least one of their clattering progeny
2.) Aging peaceful hippy, usually accompanied by their unkempt and/or spaced out spouse
3.) Eco-conscious upstart twenty-something, usually accompanied by their own coffee mug brought from their sparsely accommodated studio apartment
The coffee is self-serve, the people behind the counter are laissez-faire and spirits are high as conversation of all sorts- political, cultural, recreational and spiritual- occurs.
“Jules,” the man has finished hanging posters and walks behind the counter. The young woman (who is a member of person group #3, as evidenced by her lip ring and her “No Farmers, No Food” t-shirt) turns. He gives her a subtle palms-down wave. She nods and she turns back to face me.
She smiles brightly and I wonder if she knows that she’s supposed to steal second base.
I ask for a coffee and a scone and, because I am here so often, I know what the total is and have the bills and coins already out. I place them on the counter as the young woman reaches into the glass display case and puts a scone in a small paper bag. I laugh as I notice the sign posted on the cash register that is advertising job openings here at the bakery with the headline, “WORKERS UNITE!!!”. She slides the paper bag across the counter and next to the mug I’ve brought from home.
Because I too, belong to person group #3- a fact my students delight in reminding me of. Though they do not say “eco-conscious” anything. They just call it “Hipster”.
“John said no charge today,” she slides the bills back my way. I look behind the counter where John is kneading a ham-sized hunk of dough. He looks up and I give him a nod, mouthing my thanks, as the din of my fellow yuppy hippy upstart cohorts grows to a dull roar. He nods, gives another quarter smile, and goes back to work, slamming the dough on the flour-sprinkled counter and pulling it toward him.
I walk back to my car, passing people in ostentatiously colored swishing ski pants who gesticulate wildly as they discuss budget reform- and it is music to my ears.
Today as I drove away from the local bakery, I sipped my coffee and picked a few grounds from my teeth as I shuddered with delight and found myself feeling, quite suddenly, filthy rich. My mood uplifted by- of all things- a kindhearted, if cantankerous, man who has seen me around and who will certainly see me again.