August 25, 2005


One of the many reasons I cruise the blog world (I deplore the word blogosphere, mostly because I doubt that it has any round properties to it) is that I hold a deep, dark, craven hope that I will find new voices that inspire me to elevate my prose beyond what you might find, say, on the wall of a Greyhound bus disabled by the side of the road.

Occasionally I find near-greatness. Cherie bowled me over with her close-to-atomic level of energy and exploration. Big Dead Place routinely forces me to rethink the whole subject-verb-object thing. Bunsen makes me cough up blood from time to time, when he's not busy playing the Defamer. I can't even bear to read McSweeney's some times. The writers there are so clever, they force me to consider abandoning the few parts of the English language I actually command, in deference to their greatness.

Now I can add another to the list: My Life As A... Gas Station Attendant.

The writer claims to work in a gas station near Nashville. On the blog, he tells of the customers he encounters from behind the register:

There is a young lady standing in front of my counter; clinically speaking, a fascinating series of events is taking place. The twin clusters of cells that are my eyes are perceiving her dimensions, in their primitive and deeply limited capacity to perceive space and color. They are sending messages to the ancient, instinctive part of my brain called the hypothalamus. The message they are sending can be roughly translated thus: this is a female of your species, of adequate height, with large, bright eyes, indicating perception and inquisitiveness. Its round, full hips and round, full breasts, respectively, indicate excellent childbearing and childrearing capacity. Her colorful decorative attire suggests good grooming status, an excellent ploy to attract mates and keep offspring free from disease and infection.

The newfangled, oh-so-clever part of my brain called the cerebral cortex translates this information into other words so that I can comfort myself by thinking that I am more than a monkey wishing to pass on its monkey genetic material. It gives me a slightly more refined message: there’s a hot, brown-eyed, brunette, nineteen-year-old college girl with a unique, funky sartorial sense about her, standing in front of me looking to buy a pack of cigarettes.

“Thank you Shandra,” my thorax intones, in a voice deep and soothing, looking to allay fears that corrupt so many wild mating opportunities. My cerebral cortex has translated markings on the piece of plastic she has handed me, cleverly inferring her age and name from them. “That’s a very pretty name.”

Okay, enough of the National Geographic version of this story, for a moment.

Shandra (pronounced “Shohn-drah”), as I hand her I.D. back, perks up immediately. “You said it right!”

That’s because I’m not a drooling moron, I think to myself, and I can add one letter to “Sandra,” and take the wild guess that it’s probably going to be pronounced the same way. But she is clearly flattered by my use of her name, a trick I figured out a while back, because people always are. They get attached to their names, are happy when they are used, take joy when people approve of them, and are saddened when their names are not often used or not approved of.

I’m gonna let the whole world in on something that it is probably completely unaware of: that’s the same thing dogs think about their names.

We don’t name ourselves, after all. Our parents give them to us shortly after birth, to satisfy a legal requirement, but more importantly to train us to come when called, to have a presupposed means to get our attention. Over time, as our brains mature and acquire greater intelligence, we come to associate our names, and the tone of voice which pronounces them, with attention, with food, with affection, with reward, just like Spot and Rover associate their names with Jerky Treats and someone stroking their fur. When our dads were angry, we instinctively knew it from the sound of his voice and concluded that perhaps flight might be a safer response than obedience, just as our dogs pick up on the apprehension in our voices when we call their names but they hear “bath time” in the way that we’ve called it.

William Shakespeare, a smart monkey from 400 years ago, had an interesting take on the issue, from the perspective of a young woman talking about a young man’s name that she wasn’t supposed to like. We might all be wise to listen:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
Nor arm nor face, nor any other part,
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.

What people don’t realize is that their names are simply words, with a communicative, rhetorical value identical to any other word—a name for a thing, and not the thing itself. I can prove this easily enough: if I say that the word “car” is a stupid, ugly word, and that I have no problem with the vehicles themselves but simply dislike the sound of the word, no one but perhaps a few deeply neurotic linguists and engineers are going to get upset as a consequence. It’s only a word, after all. Next I say that I think the words “Jennifer” or “Kristine” or “Mark” are stupid, ugly words, and watch a bunch of agitated monkeys work themselves into a tizzy over it. None of them had any idea how deeply their programming ran, how utterly brainwashed and indoctrinated they are, until that moment. I can say I don’t like the word “Dan,” and Bob doesn’t get upset, but Dan does. How ridiculous is that? We’ve taken ownership of something as if it were interwoven into our DNA and not a convenient label that somebody else gave to us, getting hopping mad in defense of a concept as rhetorically neutral as “bag” or “drawer” or “potato.”

But back to the ranch. I flirt with Shandra for a little while longer. I really ought to get a phone number out of this, but I’m not feeling very assertive today, and she’s an awful lot younger than I am. I wouldn’t even be able to take her to the smoky dive bars that medicate my insanity nightly, and hence I’d actually have to employ the imagination to find other things for us to do. Well, besides the obvious one, anyway. I’ve already overthought the matter, of course, but as a man who routinely writes six-page stories about two minutes of work in a gas station, such is my custom.

I let Shandra off the hook of my unbending gaze, and she flits out the door, nervous and blushing. That one was mine but for the asking, I realize. I’m sure she’ll be back, in case I change my mind. But my mass of monkey cells has just exerted magnetic control over hers for a couple of minutes, by the bizarre, primal power of name usage and eye contact.

A friend recently gave me, like a wonderful, unexpected gift, a quote from the wizened Chinese sage Chuang-tzu. I will pass this gift on to others: “When the monkey trainer was handing out acorns, he said ‘You get three in the morning and four at night.’ This made all the monkeys furious. ‘Well then,’ he said, ‘you get four in the morning and three at night.’ The monkeys were all delighted.” Sounds about right to me.

Posted by Jeff at August 25, 2005 07:30 AM | TrackBack

A gas station attendant?

Should be writing books, what with all that purty language an' all.

(Good call!)

Posted by: Margi at August 29, 2005 02:52 PM
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