“You one a them hoopers what smoke LRD ’n’ stuff?”
- Pickup driver somewhere in Wayne County, Indiana
“How, hi are you?”
- Ralph Siskind
The Good Duck sent Ralph to Richmond on a mission of mercy to rescue the lost souls of its dog-food-eating populace.
It’s not that I harbor a grudge against Richmond. It’s more like PTSD. I grew up there.
It started with culture shock. I had spent my earliest years in the East where they spoke English. At age five, we moved to Richmond where the kids pronounced roof to rhyme with woof. And apropos of nothing one of them might suddenly ask, “how come?” as if I might have taken a bus or train rather than walking over to their house.
The adults were no better. Richmond’s radio station WKBV interviewed new arrivals like us. It was just after Christmas and the radio guy asked me what I got from Santa. “A hammer and a saw,” I said. “And what are you going to do with the hammer and saw?” Either the guy was stupid and didn’t know anything about common tools or he was testing me. Slowly and carefully I said, “I’m going to hammer with the hammer and saw with the saw.”
Some people go so far as to say Richmond is the asshole of the universe. Others say you only get that impression because of the shit passing through it. This is neither here nor there since anyone with a map of the continental United States can see that the physical asshole is located in Mobile, Alabama. You’d think it would be Biloxi, Mississippi, but you can’t argue with topography. Richmond is more like the prostate.
This disconnect between Richmond and me continued through most of primary school, which I don’t remember, except for a few seconds in third grade when I came out of my trance to be informed that I had been voted “quietest pupil,” and then again in fifth grade when Johnny Woods of the pegged jeans and ducktail told me that my mother wore army boots. I had no idea that this was intended to be a slur upon my gene pool, so I replied with my standard answer to everything: “Oh!”
Half way through sixth grade the hormones started to kick in, counteracting my undiagnosed ADD and narcolepsy. That’s not true. I was just too bored to even pretend to pay attention — until Maryanne Johansen’s chest caught my attention for the first time in six years. So I reached for one of her new protrusions and asked in total innocence, “What’s thi …?” Smack!
By junior high I was fully awake during class, which only made things worse, since I started to question why we had to do things like memorize all the Indian tribes, rivers and counties in Indiana. I didn’t bother so I got a D in social studies. I knew I would never live anywhere near the state once I got out.
We were not taught that Richmond once claimed a 40% membership in the Klan nor that in the 1880s Indiana cannabis had the highest resin content in the nation. Few knew that some of the most important and earliest jazz was recorded and pressed in Richmond. And it was long before Richmond’s most famous sons, Dan Mitrione and his bitch Jim Jones, would meet their violent ends in South America.
High school meant a reprieve from Richmond. After three years of Quaker boarding school near enough to NYC and Philly that we could stay abreast of the pharmaceutical trends of the ’60s I returned to Richmond to attend Earlham College. It was the only school that would accept me, given my SAT math scores, which were on a par with the results of primate intelligence research. This is hardly surprising since on test day I couldn’t be bothered to read the math problems and spent the entire time making pretty patterns in the little boxes on the computer card.
Richmond was more boring than I remembered. Until I met Ralph.
Exposed to Ralph’s enlightened aura and guided by his unfailing moral compass, you had no choice but to accept, no, embrace your obligation to get totally fucked up and rip holes in the flimsy fabric of consensual reality.
Such activities were best pursued with legal advice close at hand. Often our cohabitant of the House on Nat. Rd. W. John Peters would serve as our lawyer and spokesperson, thereby allowing us to nod off in the backseat while skirmishing with the insect-brained forces of tedium. Pulling up to a bank’s drive-thru teller window, John might ask, “Excuse me, are there any campsites still available?”
I had gotten a job unloading trucks at Richmond’s new and only department store, which attracted people from as far away as Versailles (rhymes with “fur sales”) just to ride the escalators up and down. If, that is, they could calibrate their timing and rouse the courage to step onto a moving staircase. It was better than watching “As The World Turns.”
One morning when I didn’t feel like working, I asked John to call the department store and tell them I would be taking the day off. “Hello, is this human resources? This is about your employee Stephen Benfey. As his attorney, I’m calling to let you know that Mr. Benfey will not be coming in today. Goodbye.”
The following day I arrived at the loading dock to begin work, when my manager called me aside and sotto voce said: “Stephen, next time when you’re not coming in, please just call me directly. It’s not necessary to have your lawyer phone human resources.”
Richmond ran on a traditional mix of malt liquor, racism and a brand of Quakerism closer in spirit to Richard Nixon than to George Fox, the English founder of the Society of Friends.
Elton Trueblood, philosophy professor, founder of Earlham’s seminary (School of Religion) and guru to Midwestern Quakers, delivered the invocation (sermon) at the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida, to support his friend Richard Nixon — an act tantamount to George Fox selling indulgences in Westminster Abbey.
In E.T.’s “defense” Nixon was, after all, a fellow Quaker (as was Herbert Hoover), though his was the evangelical branch, complete with the heresies of church, pastor, and hymns. For those unfamiliar with the Society of Friends, the orthodox Quaker version of a church service is “silent meeting” held in a “meeting house.” No sermon, steeple, or song, thank you very much. “Weighty Friends” from everywhere east of the Sierra Nevada pressured the East Whittier church, where the President has been a lifelong member, to disown this clown for his unQuakerly violence, particularly bombing of civilian populations, but the pastor, who would have been disowned by George Fox himself, wasn’t having it. But I digress.
Kurt Vonnegut (like Ralph, born in Indianapolis) satirized E.T.’s convention speech in an article for Harper’s Magazine titled “In a Manner that Must Shame God Himself.” Elton was also friends with Presidents Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Ronald Reagan. He was a known asshole.
The rules were different in Richmond, as one might expect in a place that refused to adopt daylight savings time because it wasn’t in the Bible.
After unloading trucks one day at the department store I went to a nearby bar and ordered a beer. Some guys were shooting pool so I thought I would go over and watch. I slid off the stool, beer in hand when the bartender shouted, “Sit down!” Evidently, you were not allowed to walk and drink at the same time. It was for your own safety.
At the house on Nat. Rd. W., we usually had plenty of beer around. We bought bottles by the case from a liquor store at the edge of town. This gave us insurance against the inevitable day when we would run out of money and beer at the same time. We had only to clear the living room of its temporary furniture and take the crates of empties in for a refund, which would tide us over for a day or so.
For the ultimate Richmond drinking experience you went to Satan’s Palace. It was in a desolate neighborhood near the old railroad station where most buildings had bars over their remaining windows. As did Satan’s Palace, except the bars were on the inside. To protect the windows when patrons were thrown against the walls.
As for racism, Richmond was rumored to have once been a “sundown town.” With a few token exceptions on the west (college) side of the Gorge, which sliced deep through the middle of town, most Blacks and poor Whites lived on the “wrong” side of the tracks. Streets were paved up to the tracks and left unpaved on the other side. Satan’s Palace was on the paved side, just barely.
I had taken up Taekwondo, Korean karate. The instructors were a bullheaded cop with slow reflexes, and a frail bank manager with delusions of Eastern Spiritual Knowledge. I only mention this because the cop’s pet German shepherd was named the N word. Welcome to Richmond. That and because you never know when you might have to defend yourself against a rogue 2-seater outhouse.
Taekwondo, being mostly a collection of kicking techniques, was also useful for wrangling the Ostriches in the Basement. Rumor had it that we kept live ostriches in the basement for sexual purposes best left to the listener’s imagination. We started the rumor so people at Earlham would forget about the other rumors about activities at the house on Nat. Rd. W.
Then again, just because it’s hearsay doesn’t mean it’s a fabrication. And we were careful to mention that the birds were all at least 14 years old, in case anyone had a mind to report us for chick molesting.
It was true that Ralph and someone, perhaps myself, took an axe over to one of the dorms after visiting hours and threatened to hack through the door if we were not invited in. We were politely ignored.
It was true that we had a gold-spray-painted baby doll enshrined in the front porch window. The baby doll was wearing the Good Duck sunglasses, which protected us from the Harmful Rey. Though the Good Duck was a spiritual entity, the Harmful Rey was a sentient being who roomed with my girlfriend Kim.
It was true that Ralph liked to say, “At your cervix.” This was nearly as good as “How, hi are you?” for demonstrating that most people are hardwired like an insect, to borrow a Hunter S. Thompson analogy.
There are many more true stories but, like Woodstock, if you can remember, then you probably weren’t there. Then again, I have a good imagination for what most likely happened.