Someone has propped a frail and wrinkled woman on a metal folding chair by the entrance to Earl’s diner. The folds in her face are deep, like an dried apple doll I once saw in a folk museum. Her white hair is piled on her head in Navajo style, and she seems shrunken with thin arms drawn up. Her dress is traditional Navajo and I approach her with the respect due an elder. She’s selling beaded medicine bags and has a few dollars and quarters on her display tray.
“Ya’at’eeh.” I cringe at how poorly I form the greeting in my mouth, hoping she doesn’t take offense.
Softly, I hear her words, clicks and sounds I don’t understand. I kneel beside her and she touches her hand with bent fingers to each bag. I hear clearly, “$45.” More clicks, more explanation in Navajo, her hand on the next bag. “$45.”
I shake my head. I don’t have the money and won’t dishonor her by offering her $10, the only bill I have.
She moves on to each bag, “$45.”
“They’re beautiful. Thank you for letting me look.”
Then her hand with the bent fingers taps the change on her tray. With the saddest eyes she looks right at me and says, “All I have.” If it weren’t illegal to nab a woman from the streets, I’d have picked her right up and given her room in my RV, adopting a forever Grandmother. How could I leave her there? We gaze into each other’s eyes. Wiley old woman. Her black eyes twinkle. She knows she has me.
A younger woman, as in 70 not 240, steps up and begins to talk in Navajo and I’m let off the hook. As I walk away I hear another woman click in the Navajo way, but say in English, “I’d have offered you $35.” I smile. Humor in this culture is subtle, polite and true. Inside Earl’s I catch up with the Hub and we take a table in the full restaurant. Earl’s is the heart of Gallup. No matter which reservation or pueblo you come from, this is where you go. I’m aware that we are the only Anglo faces. Bilagaanas.
What is it to be a minority? Is it about culture, skin tone, position of power? I don’t feel like a minority in Gallup, the Indian Capital of the World. It’s not so much a reflection of my own sense of being, but that I feel welcome although a stranger to these parts. No one stares, or glares. I don’t hear snide comments or feel dehumanization of the other. Those are disconnecting experiences for any marginalized group. Toas musician, Robert Mirabal, sings a sad song about the disconnection that leads to the high rate of suicide among Native youth:
“Can you take it away,
can you kiss it away,
can you take it away,
can you kiss it away…
I’m the mirror that reflects all…”
I’m the mirror that reflects the forgotten and disenfranchised in America. I know what it is to feel alone and broken. I can recognize the brokenness around me in a place called Earl’s. And what I mirror is not disconnectedness, but acceptance, beauty and strength. There’s no pretense here. No one is on a diet, recovering from plastic surgery or driving the latest luxury car advertised for discerning tastes. I don’t know the stories seated around me, but I know they are rich with love and loss, pain and beauty. Beauty, not suffering. Recently a veteran therapist said to me and the Hub, “Pain in life is inevitable; suffering optional.” To me beauty is taking that pain and working it into something meaningful and connected.
Not everyone understands.
Since becoming stranded in Gallup, we’ve come to know that this is a busy RV park for travelers going elsewhere. This is not the destination. We’re the odd ducks who stay longer than a recovery day or two from driving what was once Route 66, America’s Main Street. Gallup emerged as an overnight hub for travelers going to LA from Chicago. Old motels with peeling paint and faded signs line the old Route 66 strip. Trading posts that once attracted tourists on the road now sell Chinese-made knock-offs online. Others sell plastic beads to local artists. A recent RV neighbor told us she went downtown and there was “nothing.” Gallup has nothing is a common phrase we hear from travelers.
Gallup has warrior-artists, people who battle the pain of displacement, irrelevance and poverty to produce visual treasures. I’m razzle-dazzled like the ghosts Mirabal sings of, “The dawn has come…” At Earl’s I anticipate the dawn, the parade of “sellers” as they are called, walking through the diner with their trays full of their art. Different genders, different generations, different clans or tribes. Each artist expresses their own designs, stamps artist initials to distinguish authenticity and politely shows what they have for sale. I’ve become curious to know about their designs, meanings and stories. I’m the literary artist seeking shades of words to tell the tale.
“It’s the sunset,” he leans in to tell me as if disclosing a secret. I’m chatting over a full cup of coffee with the Hopi man who makes pottery in traditional colors (black and white or red and black with white accents). Yet he has a few pieces with non-traditional hues. The one that catches my curiosity is a red clay pot with a band the color of butter circling its middle. Above lavender darkens to purple. Below is a band of dark green like mesquite. When he says it’s the sunset, I see it. I’ve seen it out my RV door. I can’t buy the pot but neither can I un-see the gift of its beauty, the sharing of its intent.
“Hey!” At the loud and friendly voice I turn to see my favorite silversmith. She’s the artist who walks to town on her Goodyear tires, in joking reference to her tennis shoes. KJ was the first artist we met and today she makes us feel like family. “You still here?”
“Still no transmission,” I say and she commiserates with us a moment then shows me her near empty tray.
“Sold ’em all. Ha! I better go make more!”
I’m happy for her. It’s like running into an author with a near-empty box of novels at a book fair. She tells us her son, one of three children serving in the military, has shipped out to Korea. Suddenly, politics have become real. How many patriots has this community lost? I’ve seen the profusion of American flags snapping in the wind at every cemetery we’ve passed on the reservations. Gallup is also known as the Most Patriotic Town in America. Home of Code-Talkers, medal recipients, those who gave their lives in service. It’s not a populist patriotism. It’s dedicated, honorable and non-partisan.
We don’t eat out often and usually we make it our one meal of the day, snacking on cheese and crackers or PBJs later. We don’t come for the food but for the community, the connection. I’ve ordered meatloaf, comfort food. The menu describes it as Spanish, which means it will have a red or green chili sauce. It wasn’t specified. In New Mexico chilis come green or red. You have to be careful. Red is actually mild. Green can blow your head off, especially if it has chunks of bright green chilis. Christmas is not just a holiday in New Mexico; it’s a combination or red and green chilis.
“Excuse me, I overheard you are having transmission troubles,” says the man at the next table, who had been quietly chatting with two women in Navajo. Turns out he’s a diesel mechanic. He and the Hub discuss the transmission and how to solve our problem. I listen, interject and continue to watch the walking art show.
Then my salad arrives and I’m transported to my roots. I’d ordered Thousand Island, a dressing not often on menus. Now I’m tasting the Thousand Island dressing of cowboys, a Depression-era recipe of ketchup thinned with mayo. It then occurs to me that meatloaf is also a Depression-era recipe, extending ground beef with saltine crackers. I once thought I grew up with traditional recipes, but now I’m facing the truth of that tradition — it’s poor food. I don’t mean the food is poor, I mean the people consuming it know poverty. The farmers, the fruit pickers, the Oakies, the Mexicans, the ranch hands, the transient. And I know why I’m struggling with the pain of my situation. It’s the shame of my impoverished roots.
I’m the mirror that reflects all. I realize my comfort in what should be a strange culture. We find comfort in poor food. We’ve gathered in a restaurant to pay money to eat poor food! The foodie in me wants to gasp and run away. Certainly for the same amount of money I can go buy some gourmet ingredients at the Gallup Safeway and whip up something tastier, fancier, richer. Instead, I own it. With absolute relish I eat my runny dressing, dig into my meatloaf with red chili sauce next to mashed potatoes with brown gravy and relish my plain pinto beans.
The beans I savor. Bare naked dried pintos hard boiled at least a day. This was the staple of my childhood kitchen. When you bite a boiled pinto, the fiber releases a distinct bean flavor. My grandmother grew these beans, dried them and boiled them with cloves of garlic. Even better, is to fry these beans in lard, mashing them as they fry. Refried beans. Mana of every westerner. Edward Abbey writes about refried beans and every initiate to the West eats them as the “Edward Abbey diet.” It’s my go-to. I always have a can of refried beans and a packet of corn masa tortillas. A little jack cheese and I’m transported to my comfort zone.
To realize this connection between my childhood and the those around me, I feel like I belong. Earl’s would not be the kind of restaurant I would have written about in my food column years ago, but it has given me a valuable insight. I’m no longer ashamed of my poor food roots. In fact, I didn’t realize I was and I’m pleased to have extracted that awareness. It brings me back to Mirabal when he sings about the burn of conflict we all feel because no one escapes walking in two worlds.
There’s the world represented by the ancient Navajo woman outside, the medicine world. Call it your spirituality, your Christianity, your Muslim or Hindi faith, your atheism. It’s your inner beliefs, your culture, your desire to know who you are and why you are. Mirabal says it has a dance, a language, the music and the arts. It’s all the beautiful things. The other world is that of confusion and computers, of cars and telephones. It’s chaos and yet we need it. He shouts, “Do you feel that burn of conflict? DO YOU FEEL THAT BURN OF CONFLICT? Yeah, I thought you did…” But then he prays for the next generation that their paths and transitions will be smoother, easier and that their fires will burn with hope, desire and love. “Do you feel that love? DO YOU FEEL THAT LOVE…”
Like the Taos People we live with our angels and demons. This is the dance between pain and beauty. Push into the fire, extract your art.
One concern I have as a writer it is that of right. What do I have the right to write? I’m all about diversity in books and making the literary arts available to all cultures. But do I have the right to write about other cultures? This was a topic at BinderCon LA in 2014. The grievous act is that of perpetuating stereotypes in fiction. In memoir, the concern is where does our story end and invade the privacy of another? I’m not sure I have the answer, but I’ll do my best to kneel in respect and try to understand. I’ll look for connections and common ground. I’ll share handshakes, art and laughter. I’ll be me and recognize you.
Writing Ike’s best friend, Michael Robineaux, as Native American initially felt uncomfortable to me. It wasn’t gratuitous. It was to honor a teenage sweetheart whose uncles had all been Marines. We worked together at a state park and he drove me crazy with all his boyish teasing. I didn’t know until later that he had wanted to ask me to be his girlfriend. I would have liked that, but I think we were both shy in that regard. I knew even as a teen that Natives were proud to serve in the military and I wanted to find a way to recognize that, thus my character’s creation.
What helps with developing any character is to think of him or her outside the frame of the story. What was childhood like? Did he move around or never leave until military service? What’s his favorite book, or does he like to fish after work? Is he neat or untidy? Who is his sister? What’s their relationship like? Does he hate a certain band? Why? And what food did he grow up with? What brings him comfort, or feels familiar?
May 4, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about comfort food. How can this familiarity influence a story or character? Is it something unusual, like Twinkies from the 1970s? Or is it something from home, from another place or time? Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by May 9, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published May 10). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Normal Tastes (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
“Tobasco Sauce?” Danni sat down with Michael and sprinkled her eggs liberally.
“I tasted it once on raw oysters, and it was not pleasant. Might have been the oysters, though.”
“I love fried oysters. If we ever ate out as a kid, we’d go to the Red Lion in Elko. I’d have liver and onions or fried oysters.”
“No hamburger and fries like a normal kid?”
“Nope, but if I’m to eat slimy things I like them peppered, breaded and fried.”
“Hmm.” Michael sprinkled two dots of sauce on his eggs. “Not sure I like food that bites back.”