When my son was 4, he used to go “consploring” and have “inventures.” Made exploring and having adventures all the more interesting-sounding. As I recall (the kid’s much taller than I, now), most everything became an inventure: grocery shopping, a trip to the dry cleaners, a stroll to the mailbox. The difference between an inventure and just running an errand was all in one’s consplorable attitude. You had to be constantly on the lookout for new discoveries. They’re there, all right — if you’re willing to look for them.
I’ve been living in Whittier now for a dozen years, and my paths have become somewhat beaten. I walk down to Sunnyside Up Café for an omelet/omelette/omelett (hey, each variation is on the menu) and my tea’s on the table before I even sit down. I schedule meetings over coffee at the Bad Waitress or French Meadow, hit Figlio’s for the ravioli my husband requires to sustain life, take a short walk around the big block, take a longer one around Lake of the Isles. Theater Antiques used to be a weekend requirement, followed by the Greek salad at Christo’s, with the best feta in town. I guess I’ve developed haunts and habits. I certainly wouldn’t call them ruts, however, because they are my chief joys of living in my neighborhood.
But one thing I never did was walk through the doors of the James Ballentine VFW Post 246 on 29th & Lyndale. I thought it might be something of an anomaly, coexisting in the land of the multiply pierced and fluorescently coiffed, the urban gentry and the black-clad hipsters. I was not sure that I, who would have voted for George McGovern had I been old enough to do so, would have been welcome. I have not fought in a foreign war, mostly due to the fact that other people did — a heartfelt “thank you” to them. I don’t know VFW etiquette and fear of offending, especially offending people who understand more than I do about operating weaponry, inhibited my visit. But hey. That’s what consploring and inventures are all about.
So I had a birthday and headed over to the VFW, friends in tow. We camped out alongside the plastic brick wall in a couple of those half-circle booths that you see in old Frank Sinatra movies and at Nye’s, ordered a round of drinks for what two beers usually costs, fetched the free popcorn, and cracked open the nine-pound karaoke books. I did not personally meet the woman who runs the karaoke, but she has firm rules — they are posted in the book — and woe be to him or her who violates them. She pulled the plug on a fellow who unsteadily and unsuccessfully argued his case for a while, called her a “hard, hard woman,” and then staggered away. Singers croon along at a fast clip (four minutes a song, that’s it!), semiprofessional ringers occasionally bring down the house, multiple TV sets in the bar encourage out-of-tune singalongs, and the crowd was the friendliest I’ve sat in the middle of for a long time. There were probably a few actual veterans in there, but they made room for the 20- and 30-somethings, plus us. I’m a grad student now, you know, so many of my friends are the ages of my children, and yet we were easily assimilated. (No “Candida” in the karaoke book; darn). I didn’t feel too young or too old, which at my age is a rarer feeling than I wish it were. Two strapping fellows offered my congratulations on my 25th birthday and I tipped them. At the end of the evening, Karaoke Lady sang “I’m Proud to Be an American”— and so did the entire crowd, probably more wryly, but still at the top of their lungs. It was, in a word, a hoot.
So here’s the thing. I’m not giving you a tour of the restaurants and businesses of Uptown and Whittier as much as tipping my hat to my neighbors. They are like home, where around the kitchen table and up on the second landing where we wait in line for the bathroom, we gather to work out problems, compare news of the day, and complain about the weather. There are certain announcements and life events that are remembered against the backdrop of the refrigerator and amidst the clatter of the utensil drawer. I will forever associate the scrape of a kitchen chair being pulled out with the unburdening of teenage hearts, the clank of the cookie jar with the messy footprints of 8-year-old boys, and the news flash: “Mom, I’m getting married” with the unloading of the dishwasher. I got the job, I lost the job, we’re pregnant, the cat died, the baby’s fine, your mother called, you should call your mother, all live in the air and aisles and booths and vestibules of the co-op, the drug store, the gas station, the dentist’s office, and the garden store. It ain’t poetic, it’s not the movies, but it’s life in the neighborhood.
And sometimes, life in the neighborhood is not being sure you’ll fit in and still fitting, about that gathering-together thing we humans insist on doing, about tolerating and being tolerated, which is what freedom, I guess, ought to be about, at the down-deep heart of it.
Last week, the VFW was already crowded, and now that I’ve written this, I supposed you’ll all go and I’ll never be able get that cool booth again. But I can live with that. That’s the price of consploring and having a little inventure.
Pamela Hill Nettleton lives in Whittier.