Friday, July 12, 2019

Nurse the Hate: Flat Stanley

I was in North Carolina for about 17 hours last weekend.  I was called “Sweet Pea” and “Darlin” by strangers, which is one of the main indicators that you are in The South.  (The other is being served sweet tea without being asked.)  I am not sure why I find this good cheer off putting somehow.  The foreign concept of random kindness makes me uneasy.  It is probably my East Coast Irish Catholic upbringing.  While I am being met with that sugary smile, I immediately flash to the idea of the surprisingly affordable Remington Model 870 Express Hardwood Pump-Action shotgun with Federal LE Tactical Flite Control 12-Gauge 2 ¾ Buck 9 Pellet shells, allegedly the most effective form of suicide possible with the least “agony factor” as per, a leading online voice on efficiently ending your life.  I think in North Carolina you can walk almost anywhere with such a weapon but using it indoors in a folksy coffee shop is likely frowned upon, so I ordered coffee instead. 

Everyone around me in the oh-so-cutely named “Busy Bean” coffee shop was smiling and happy.  I don’t know their secret.  I was struggling with the after effects of too many Pabst.  The following exchange happened.  “What can I get for YOU sweet pea?”  How about a double espresso?  “Let me fix you right up there Darlin’!”  She rang up the total on the register.  I handed her my credit card.  “Let me get this done and hand it right back to you!  I’m not going to keep it… I’m not your wife!”  Caught up in the runaway train of good cheer, I countered.  “Not yet you’re not Darlin!”  We shared a big fake laugh.

I felt like I had done my part in this play.  The woman behind the counter seemed pleased and smiled as she prepped my coffee.  It made me feel hollow though, like a cheap Hollywood set.  Out of the blue, I recalled a story from my second-grade reading book, “How It Is Nowadays”.  I don’t remember much from second grade except the title of my reader and that my friend Michael Schultz shit his pants during art class in what can be described as “an unfortunate incident”.  The reader was pure 1970s with a flamingo on the cover that in retrospect might have been an homage to the music and lifestyle of Pablo Cruise.  There were no stories about flamingos in that book that I can recall.  I do remember one story vividly though.  That story was called “Flat Stanley”, a tale of a boy that was run over by a steam roller and not only survived but thrived.

Flat Stanley, at first ostracized due to being essentially a cardboard cutout, later was not only accepted but celebrated.  Once Flat Stanley demonstrated how he could slip underneath doors and do things the other children could not, he was popular and filled with self esteem.  Even as a seven-year-old, I recognized this as a riff on the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer theme of “differences in appearance should not separate us, so be nice to kids of different ethnicities and social class”.  It also reinforced the idea presented in Looney Toons cartoons that steamrollers were harmless beyond altering your basic form.  Sure, you were flattened, but otherwise tip-top.

That story stuck with me for some reason.  Is it really as simple as it appears?  Could the children’s author also be suggesting that to thrive in modern times one needed to be two-dimensional, that to be a rounded individual was dangerous to the group?  I wonder if there was an intentional idea to suggest that Stanley did not fit in as a normal boy, so he needed the present to the world a simplified persona.  By becoming smaller, Stanley was able to gain acceptance with his peers.  This can be looked at as subversively trying to control children’s minds by limiting their drive to becoming unique individuals that might ask dangerous questions.  Maybe the author's intention is not that dark and authoritarian.  Perhaps it is more of a warning.  The idea could be that Stanley thrived by presenting to the world a simple two-dimensional persona but underneath it still maintained his true identity by keeping it hidden behind his appearance.  The message of the story could be argued that limited individuality is possible but needs to be carefully concealed from the others, despite the broad stroke theme of the story appearing to be the opposite.  Not just a simple children’s story, Flat Stanley can be argued to be a work of depth.  This is especially true in that it was presented to a group of seven year old readers that still potentially shit themselves without warning.  I certainly took more from Flat Stanley than I did from my later slog in high school through Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd”.

The coffee was briskly served to me on the counter.  “Are you sure there’s nothing else I can do for you Honey Pie?”  You’ve already done too much.  “Hahahaha!  You have a super day, OK now?”  I took my coffee and walked outside, the screen door shutting behind me, effectively rescuing me from further theater.  I waited for my Uber and thought about Flat Stanley.              


At July 16, 2019 at 3:03:00 PM EDT , Blogger Bobdontgiveaf#ck said...

Speaking as a transplanted midwestern yankee well versed in the arts of suspicion and cynicism who’s lived in the South for the last ten years, I can assure you that the vast majority of these overly friendly interactions with total strangers are completely genuine. Not all, of course, but most. It’s just the Southern way. Be nice to folks ya meet, it’s good manners. Is it a better way? Sure. Do you ever get used to it? No, not really. Now f*ck off and go get me my coffee, I haven’t got all day. (Hey, oh, way to go Ohio...)


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