May 28th, 2017
“In my little town, I never meant nothin’
I was just my father’s son.
Savin’ my money, dreamin’ of glory…
Twitchin’ like a finger on a trigger of a gun!”
Paul Simon, My Little Town
Karin and I stopped for gas and food in Gallup, New Mexico. Gallup is the biggest (actually, the only) town between Albuquerque and Flagstaff, along I-40. We pulled off the interstate, stopped at a filling station, and we found a Denny’s. There was a hotel nearby. Next to the Denny’s was a store selling “Native American art! Turquoise! Blankets! Leather goods!” Karin wanted to know if it was a rip off. I told her that I had no idea, as I pumped fuel into the car.
Gallup is in the desert, and it is surrounded by Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni Indian reservations. The land is desolate. You can’t even grow weeds out here. Gallup is one of those places that is neither here nor there. It’s a wayside. It’s a town where people pause briefly in their hurry to get to somewhere else. That’s why Karin and I were there.
It was immediately obvious to me, once we sidled into our booth at Denny’s, that everybody there, besides us, was Native American. Karin and I were the only white people in the restaurant. It wasn’t a problem. People were friendly and the service was excellent. It was just an anomaly.
Karin and I finished our lunch, and then I went up to the register to pay for the meal. A young Indian took my credit card and rang up the bill. The man was probably just out of high school.
He asked me, ”Was everything good?”
“Yeah, the food was great.”
I asked him, “You live around here?“
The Indian replied, “Yeah.“
“Is it nice?”
The young man stared into the distance, and then he said, “Well, there isn’t much to do around here.” There was a wistfulness in his voice.
Then he looked at me, smiled, and said, “Thanks for coming in!”
Karin and I hit the road. I drove for a while. I had time to think as we crossed over from New Mexico to Arizona. I thought and I remembered. The Indian’s response to my question was spot on. Forty-one years ago, I would have said the exact same thing.
When I was eighteen, I was looking for a way out of West Allis, a grimy industrial town located next to Milwaukee. There wasn’t much to do in West Allis either. It was a place where dreams went to die. There were plenty of factories, all of them unware that they would be bought out or closed down within a decade. There was a white, eastern European population that was terrified of blacks and browns and anything new. There were innumerable working class taverns, places where men could drink just enough to make them forget about the dead end in their futures.
Gallup is very different from West Allis. But maybe they are also the same, at least for a young man with dreams and ambition. For me and for the young Navajo at Denny’s, these towns are suffocating. Life might not be any better in another city, or in another state, or even in another country. However, life could be different. That’s all that really matters.
It’s a bitch leaving home. This young guy at Denny’s would have to leave his tribe. I left my tribe. White guys have tribes too. A person leaves home forever. It is never the same when the person comes back, if they come back. Once a person leaves, they change, and the people left behind change.
Will the young man in Gallup leave home? I have no idea. I hope he does. I could see in his face and hear in his voice that longing, that pain. He needs to go out and see the world. He might get his ass kicked. I did. It doesn’t matter. It is better to try something new and fail, than it is to never try at all. It is easier to deal with mistakes and failures than it is to wonder about “what might have been”. Life is about living, not succeeding.
I pray for this young man. I am sure that he has forgotten me. I won’t forget about him.