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Urban Misfit (1995)

Urban Misfit (1995)

©1995, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1995). A child of the sixties in her forties in the nineties: Urban misfit. Unpublished essay.






A Child of the Sixties in her Forties in the Nineties

Urban Misfit?

 By Dallas Denny


It many ways I think I’ve adapted poorly to the American urban lifestyle. Or have I? I don’t know. I’m not sure. Sometimes I’m convinced I’ve made a poor adjustment, and at other times, it seems the whole’s world’s crazy and I’m dealing pretty well with it. I’m really confused about it. Here’s an example of why I don’t know: the shelves of my refrigerator are filled with jugs and bottles and jars of condiments, jellies, jams and sauces, many of which have been sitting there since I moved in five years ago. My default assumption is the contents of these containers are not spoiled; only if I’m greeted with green fuzzies, white and blue clouds of mold, or an unfortunate odor do I not optimistically spread, pour, or spoon the contents of a jar I bought in 1992 over and into food I bought just last week at Kroger.

Why do I suppose these remnants from the Watergate period are all right? Sure, the name preserve on some of the jars suggests they’re made to last, but if refrigerated fresh vegetables from the store are history in a week to ten days, if the predominant flavor of frozen foods is freezer bite after only three or four weeks of storage, if the loaves in the breadbox are spotted with mold within a week and the potatoes and onions sprout and the milk curdles within a couple of weeks, why do I and my roommates, baby boomers who know about Salmonella, botulism, and other deadly food spoilers, complacently keep in our refrigerator things which pre-date MTV? Is this a sign we have adapted to this age of major appliances and convenience foods, believing implicitly that technology will not only make things convenient but keep us safe, or that we are not sufficiently consumer-minded to rotate those jars and bottles into the circular file and buy the new and improved products that are now on the shelves in the supermarket?

Another example: I drive my car, putting gas into it when the needle falls toward E, but rarely checking fluids, and virtually ignoring my tires unless they go flat or I see something shiny on one of them which turns out to be the metal belt. When the Dodge coughs, sputters, smokes, or stops, I call the mechanic, but otherwise, I just drive it. It gets no maintenance. And neither, for that matter, does anything else I own. The fans, power tools, and other things with motors have never seen a drop of oil; I’m not even sure if one is supposed to oil such things these days. I don’t ever wipe things off with a soft, dry cloth like the instructions say. And I’ve not sharpened a saw, knife, mower blade, or pair of scissors in the past ten years, or maybe in my whole life. When things stop working, I get rid of them, or simply don’t use them. But I feel guilty about it. So am I adjusted to this urban lifestyle, or am I maladjusted to it?

At the most basic level, I violently distrust the culture which made this technology possible, and wish it would go away. As I sit in air-conditioned comfort (or drive around wasting fossil fuel, also in air-conditioned comfort), I lament the effect our technology-based society has had and is having on the ecology of the planet, and like many other Americans grieve for the lost forests which once covered the eastern half of North America, for the days of the family farm. If only I could have ten acres, a house with solar heat and air conditioning, a satellite uplink, a room full of computers, and a light rail stop within a quarter-mile of my house to whisk me away to some fabulous restaurants, I tell myself, I would be a very happy puppy. And then I send out for Chinese.

And then there’s the relationship I have with my computer. I spend hours in front of it, writing, playing games, and engaging in flame wars on the internet. I’ve mastered the rudiments of the operating system and am familiar with many programs— and yet I virtually ignore whole categories of software which were created to make my life easier. I don’t use a spreadsheet, for example, despite the fact that it would help me make more sense out of my finances, or a database; I keep everything in lists on the word processor instead.

A nightmare of suburban life is the lawn. The lawn is a monster which must be controlled every two weeks with a mower. It makes no sense to me that lawns can’t be mowed at night when it’s cool, but must be cut during the daytime, when one gets hot and sweaty and maybe sunburned. It makes even less sense that there have to be lawns at all. If we just left our yards alone, in a hundred or so years they would have evolved into a cool, green climax forest which would shade our houses so we could turn off our energy-consuming air conditioners. Instead, we push the mower around every two weeks. This seems a form of collective insanity to me, and yet like everyone else, I do it— or rather, I hire someone to do it for me.

I’ve not yet come to terms with computerized appliances. When I buy a washing machine or a microwave, I steer away from LED displays and look for something with a dial I can turn and forget about. I’m an intelligent person, but I don’t wish to take the equivalent of a college course so I can learn how to access features I will never use. I really don’t care, for instance, that I can set the microwave so the meat loaf will cook on low speed for two hours, be held warm until six o’clock, and then heat up for dinner at eight. I just want hot water for instant grits. I’m not organized enough to know what I’ll want for dinner, and if I did, I wouldn’t have the ingredients, and if I didn’t have the ingredients, I wouldn’t have time to go get them, and if I did go get them, I wouldn’t have time to mix them and program the microwave before going to work in the morning; I’d say the hell with it and stop by Mickey D’s. I’m lucky enough to get out the door and into my car with tires which have never had their pressure checked and fight hordes of people just like me (or are they?) and get to work in the morning. With that kind of stress, I really don’t care that the VCR perpetually thinks it is twelve o’clock.

And then there are television programs. I don’t get interested in a show until it’s ready to be yanked off the air, or better yet, has already been retired. Then I must search around, channel surfing in the hopes of finding it in syndication. My worst nightmare is a Dobie Gillis Marathon or a Star Trek Next Generation all-nighter, for I must get myself organized enough to find or buy blank videotapes and be around to start the machine (as I’ve not figured out how to start it automatically), or else be doomed to wait around for another five to seven years until another marathon comes around. And after I tape the programs, of course, I never watch them.

The signs of my maladjustment to this culture are perhaps best manifested in my refusal to conform to its schedule. I don’t decide to go out to the mall until it’s nine o’clock and it’s closing, or to eat supper until after eleven, when all the restaurants have turned out their lights and I must either go hungry or force myself to walk through the doors of the Waffle House. I don’t get to the theater until after six, when twilight prices have just ended and movies have become a major investment again. I don’t turn on the radio until Garrison Keilor has just finished the news from Lake Wobegon. I don’t change the bag on the vacuum cleaner, go to the doctor regularly for a checkup, have my breasts examined every year, or get to the hair salon every six weeks like my stylist wants me to. I haven’t had a tetanus shot within the last seven years, or even the last seventeen. I don’t keep particularly informed on current affairs, I don’t vote, I don’t go to church, I don’t belong to the neighborhood association or any social clubs, I don’t go to the library to check out books, I don’t even make up my bed. In fact, after two or three days, the sheets tend to come loose at the corners and I sleep thereafter in a big knot of bedclothes. I don’t iron my clothes, either. I lost my iron during my last move and before that I was keeping it only for symbolic purposes, anyway. I don’t eat three meals a day, and when I do eat, if it’s nutritious, it’s because the restauranteur has a sense of social responsibility and not because I’ve been able to expend any special effort to buy and steam fresh vegetables.

In short, I’m a mess. But what is unclear is whether everyone else in this urban nightmare is in the same sorry shape I am. Admittedly, I have a busy life, running from meeting to meeting, finding my spare time eroding away, using my vacations for business. But others seem as busy, or busier, checking their Day Runners, which always seem to be wall-to-wall with appointments. I don’t own a day runner, and if I had one I’d not be organized enough to keep it up-to-date. I have a cheesy little appointment book which I always seem to have left somewhere else. I can’t even get organized enough to keep up with the scraps of paper I use to write down my appointments.

My roommates are on the run as much as I am. The kitchen sink is usually filled with dirty dishes, the counters are unwiped, and the carpet in their area hasn’t been vacuumed since the last time I couldn’t stand it any more and broke out the wet vac, roughly the Reagan era. On the other hand, their bathroom stays reasonably clean, and the one I use looks like the Okeefenokee Swamp. On the other other hand, they ignore the lawn, which I pay to have mowed so the neighbors won’t get up a petition to have the bad neighbors thrown out. And on the other other other hand, all of us ignore the tree which has sprouted beside the stoop and is beginning to block the doorway. We duck around it rather than pulling it out by the roots or cutting it down. In fact, it is probably now too big to pull up, and will have to be cut down. Maybe with a chainsaw. And which of us will have the time to go borrow, rent, or buy one?

I realize there are people who live much like Ward and June Cleaver did on TV back in the ’50s. I occasionally see them on Sunday morning as they’re coming home from church. Their clothes are neatly pressed (my ironing board is the permanent home of my bread machine, and as I said, I’ve misplaced my iron), their shoes are shined (I haven’t shined my shoes in years), their cars are sparkling clean (mine is still muddy from Hurricane Albert), and I just know there′s correct pressure in all four of their tires. But then again, maybe only one of every couple works and the other stays at home and takes care of all the details. Maybe they don’t get 37 e-mail messages, a pile of snail mail, seven faxes, and 20 telephone calls every day. Maybe they label and date the condiments in their refrigerators and throw the old ones away every couple of months and keep their lives in perfect order with everything filed, folded, and arranged at right angles to everything else. And then again, maybe I’m seeing the facade they present to the public, and behind the scenes their lives are in even worse shambles than mine. Maybe under those sharply pressed suits, they’re wearing dirty underwear because they haven’t found the time to get the washing machine repaired.

I’m not the worst in the world. At least, I don’t think I am. I manage to file my income tax yearly— primarily because I know that if I don’t, the Feds will eventually come and get me; despite this threat, many of my friends haven’t filed in years. But I’m habitually outside the two-week grace period for paying my bills, and I’ve not managed to drop by to get tags for the car I bought last September. So then again, maybe I am the worst in the world. I’m telling you, I really can’t seem to get a handle on it.

I can’t figure out if my haphazard pattern of living is an adaptive response to the vagaries of urban life, or if I’m seriously maladjusted. What do you think? Am I an urban misfit? Is anyone else living like this? Is anyone else as confused as I am? As disorganized?

Is your underwear neatly folded in a sacheted drawer, or are your clean clothes co-mingled with the dirty ones on the floor because you can’t find the time to put them away? Is the leftover cranberry sauce from Thanksgiving dinner still in a Tupperware container in your refrigerator? Was Dwight Eisenhower alive the last time you balanced your checkbook? Is your kitchen garbage can overflowing? Are there light bulbs burned out you’ve been meaning to replace but just haven’t gotten around to? Do you dust your house regularly? Do you ever dust it?

I’m not talking about being obsessive and compulsive here; I’m merely asking if others in this urban wilderness we call America are like me and just can’t seem to get around to the simple chores of daily living like shopping and cleaning. Are you a well-oiled cog in the urban machine, or are you like me, a fly in the ointment?

If I had ointment, and if there were a fly in it, I probably wouldn’t have yet gotten around to fishing it out!