Sunday, April 25, 2010

Deep in the Adamantium Heart of Texas

Something about a big white space that needs adding to, right?

Like that issue of Love & Rockets that starts off with Maggie & Hopey scoping the unmarked wall across their street, cracking wise about "The Great White Wall" and "Call me Fishmael" and so on before Hopey goes to tag it?
Yeah: Beautiful. I read that issue, what, once? Years and years ago?
And I still think of it every time I see a white wall, untouched, waiting on the street.
But I'm no tagger, no paint bomber, nothing but a vicarious aficionado of that whole fat-cap, wildstyle, mondo-piece street scene. What I do with spray paint involves stretching big swaths of burlap on an empty parking lot somewhere and spraying across the patterns of masking tape I've set onto the fabric ~ nothing more, little less. Art, some people call it; but what it really is, if I do a good enough job, is something that looks compelling enough that I'd buy it if somebody else was selling it.
But there's that call of blankness ~ "Hey, you! Fuckin' fill me with something, here!" ~ that obtains whether it's from a big urban vertical in the shadows of night or a sheet of leftover copier paper in some rat-race office or ... the Specials Board of a 24-hour diner on the near Westside of Austin, Texas.
Something about a big white space that needs adding to.
Something about the iconic sound effects of the Marvel Universe.

The Magnolia Cafe on Lake Austin Boulevard. Mid-90s. Don't ask me to remember the exact year. I was in my mid-30s. I was working as a waiter, had been at The Mag for half a decade already, ferrying hot food to patchouli-smelling hippies and Lexus-driving yuppies and Westlake fratboys and unsigned bass players and so on.
Busting the ol' hump so as to provide for self and young daughter: It was, at the time, a living.
I had a couple of graveyard shifts in addition to the dinner shifts and a Sunday brunch, and this was one of those graveyard shifts: Where this thing with Marvel's Wolverine happened.
Not with the character of Wolverine, exactly, nor with Hugh Jackman who would later play him in the movies. With the sound effect of Wolverine, as mentioned above.
It's a funny world, I'm telling you.
Because there was no nightly special on the graveyard shift. So by the time I was on the floor, the Specials Board ~ an approximately 20" x 30" whiteboard with accompanying cohort of Dri-Erase markers ~ had been wiped clean of that night's unique dinner offering.
There was the Board, sitting above the beverage station, right where all the customers could easily see it, but now displaying exactly nothing.
And there was a lull each night, a lull that fell between the last of the late-dinner crowd and the first trickle of the bustling bar rush to follow. And, yeah, if you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean. But, first off, everything had been pretty much cleaned already by the departing dinner waiters and, second off, after seven years of working there, my cleaning habits had become somewhat, ah, lackadaisical.
Shame upon the house of Brenner, but there it is.
So I had a bit of downtime near the start of each graveyard shift.
And there was that Specials Board.
And customers ~ especially late-night customers ~ like a bit of distraction,
a bit of let's-call-it
whimsical diversion every now & again.

Also, I've always had all this trivia stuffed in my head ~ literary things, comicbook things, movie things ~ and, except for endless self-amusement, it doesn't do anyone a damned bit of good.
Well, so, hey: What's the intersection of all those conditions?
This: At the start of each graveyard shift, I'd write a different quotation on the Specials Board. From a movie or a book or a graphic novel.  Just throw it on up there, give people something to look at and ponder over. And if they asked about it, hey, I'd be happy to tell them. Or, if they wanted to give a thumbs-up, because it was (typically) kind of an obscure quote and they were pleased for having recognized it & wanted to share a fleeting bit of camaraderie with whoever had written it on the Specials Board ... well, so much the better.
"Only connect," right?
In fact, that line of E. M. Forster's, "Only connect," that was the first thing I put on the Specials Board. And then, night after night, a new quotation, dragging up lines that were memorable from what I'd read of E. Hemingway ~ The road to hell is paved with unbought stuffed dogs. ~ and S. Jackson ~ 'Merricat,' said Constance, 'would you like a cup of tea?' ~ and N. Gaiman ~ How fares the gryphon at your gates, Dream King? ~ and so on, night after night.
And people would occasionally inquire, and I'd tell them where the quote came from; or my fellow waitrons would refer the customer to me, and then I'd tell them. And, much less frequently ~ maybe every fourth time I worked graveyard ~ a customer would happily inform me of the quote's origins ... and we'd yak about the book or movie for a few minutes ... and I'd give them  ~ surprise! ~ a free slice of Peanut Butter Cream Pie.
Good times.
But after about four months of this, I was running out of especially interesting quotes. Things were getting a bit banal, and I didn't want to (during my non-Mag hours) have to start looking things up and writing them down for later. And so one night I grabbed the black marker and wrote, in big comic-sansy letters, SNIKT! across the Specials Board.
Strangely, no one made a peep.  There wasn't a single response, querying or otherwise, from that night's trickle of people.  Even through the bar rush ~ maybe it was slower than usual, that night? ~ there was nothing about the exclamation on the Specials Board.
After bar rush, however ...
After bar rush, it was mostly empty in the section I was working ~ the front of the main room, with another waitron working the back section, and a third waitron on the covered patio. It was mostly empty, except for this one guy sitting in the first booth. He'd been eating pancakes, I think, and nursing a coffee ... and looking up at the Specials Board with a hint of amusement on his goatee'd face.
And I'm standing there, leaning against the beverage station, pretty much directly underneath the Board with its bold SNIKT!, just taking a breather before it's time to start busting ass on all the closing sidework.
And this guy in the first booth gives me a little c'mere tilt of his head, like he's ready to close out the check. And I walk over, all waiterly attentive. "Yes, sir?"
And the guy nods at the Specials Board. "That's Wolverine," he says.
And I smile all big & toothy, because ~ finally ~ somebody in the diner knows what the hell I'm talking about that night. 

(Or, okay, at least somebody knows and wants to share the knowledge.)
"That's right," I say.  "You know the X-Men?"
The guy reaches his hand over his emptied plate, reaches his hand across the booth's table, offers his hand to me for a shake. 

"I'm Peter David," the guy says.  "I write the X-Men."

It's a funny world, I'm telling you.

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