Saturday, January 28, 2012

Happiness Is a Warm Gun . . . And a Teddy Bear

Comfort Items: A Warm Gun...
And a Teddy Bear

The Beatles had it only half right when they sang, “Happiness is a warm gun.” A warm gun might be number one on some lists, but other comfort items also weigh in.
In October 2006, I spent two weeks in a tiny southern town. The inn where I lodged was a refurbished fifties-style motel. From the outside, it looked like a row of concrete rooms. Rows of hanging plants lined the façade of the rooms and benches sat beneath the overhang that protected guests from the area’s frequent rains.
It was the only motel in town; I was exhausted and I noted the vacancy sign was lit, so I parked and walked past the ice machine to the second row of concrete rooms and entered a different world. A courtyard separated the rows of rooms. Birds, flowers, plants, and inspirational quotes composed the hand-painted murals covering the exterior walls. The courtyard was lush with greenery and flowers. Fountain gurgles joined birdsong to complete the tranquil setting.
I registered and got my key, yet I was still a bit wary—until I turned the key and opened the door to Room 3. No McMotel this; it was bright, clean, colorful. I felt like I’d stepped into a Mary Engelbreit painting. I had all the amenities of the best McMotel—central air and heat, microwave, refrigerator with freezer, iron, hairdryer, cable TV, and a wireless Internet conduit to my 1200-mile-distant family, friends, and editing career. Blessed relief washed over me.
I hadn’t ended my nicotine addiction, so I smoked outside my smoke-free room on the bench beneath the hanging pots of Boston ferns. Cars parked in front of the rooms, so guests were only a few steps from car to room.
I was in the south, so I had to reacquaint myself with the fact that people spoke to each other. My years in New England taught me to avert my eyes, keep my face straight ahead, not acknowledge people, and never speak to people unless I knew them. That ended when I crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. I relearned how to say hello to folks I don’t know. I starting making eye contact and greeting people.
When I sat on the bench and someone walked by, we spoke. Often, it was travel talk: “Hi, where you from? Where you headed?”
One afternoon four young men and one woman arrived. The next morning, as one of the young men was packing their car trunk, we began a conversation. It was awkward to have a conversation from a distance of 20 feet, so I got up and walked toward him. When I was about five feet away, he pointed to the waistband of his shorts and said, “I have a gun here. I didn’t want you to see it and get scared.”
That warning was a miserable failure. I was scared out of my wits. He tried to reassure me. He pulled out his wallet, opened it, and said, “Here, I have a license to carry it,” and pointed to a plastic-sleeved card that I couldn’t read from my five-foot safety zone. “I carry it for protection, I’ve been robbed too many times. Don’t worry, the safety is on.”
I said, “I’m glad you told me.” But I rather would not have known and I probably would not have noticed. Hyperaware that I stood in a parking lot talking to someone with a G-U-N, I tried to act normal, like I always stand around making small talk with people who have a G-U-N.
“So, where are you from?” my words said, but my mind said, “Oh, my God, he’s got a gun!”
“I live outside Savannah, but I’m from Jamaica.”
“How long have you been in the United States?” (Mind: “Yes, he really has a gun. Act normal!”)
“Six years.”
“What do you think? Do you like it here?” (Mind: “Yep, still has that gun. Make small talk. No big deal, it’s just a G-U-N.”)
“Yes. My country is beautiful, but it’s poor. I can work here and make money. But people steal things here. I am the only one of my friends who keeps getting robbed. That’s why I carry the gun.”
“Did you carry a gun in Jamaica?”
“Oh, no. There, we carry knives.”
My mind was on overload: Guns here, knives there. This guy was going to kill me for sure. “Stop it!” I said to myself, He was simply telling me about his life: “Here, I have a gun. There, I had a knife.”
“Do you have another cigarette?” he asked.
I laugh when I’m nervous, so I laughed. “Sure,” I said and put my hands up. “You’ve got the gun. I’ve got the cigarettes.” I went to the room and got two—I needed another one even though I was a bit more at ease. I said to myself, “What’s he gonna’ do, shoot me?” That was too far-fetched to imagine. I walked to the back of the car, where he continued packing the trunk, and gave him the cigarette. “Are you leaving soon?” I asked. (Mind: “And I hope you’re taking that G-U-N far away from here!”)
“As soon as I finish packing,” he said as he stuffed clothing, shoes, blankets, and pillows into the trunk. He walked back to the room and returned, holding a three-foot-long teddy bear. The bear was champagne colored and had long silky fur. He placed it on top of the pillows and tucked it in, cushioning it against any bumps in the road.
Puzzled, I looked at him and asked, “Is that your teddy bear?”
“Yes. It goes everywhere I go.” He patted the silky fur, touched the bear’s face, and then turned to me and smiled.
I smiled, too, but I was stunned. I said, “So, you’ve got your gun, and you’ve got your teddy bear, and you’re all set?”
He smiled and said, “That’s right.”
We said our goodbyes, but before he drove away, I said, “Be careful with that gun.”
Later, I realized that he is like all of us—but perhaps more honest.
Most of us have comfort items: things that make us feel secure. When I’m traveling, it’s usually a AAA membership, a charged cell phone, a zero-balance credit card, and a McMotel. For forty-plus years, everywhere I go, I have carried my good-luck sea bean my sister found on the beach. I have far too many superstitions. In spite of my superstitious nature, because I am a person of faith, I also pray, pray, pray. But my comfort list continues to grow. It includes food, clothing, rituals, numbers I avoid, numbers I embrace, days on the calendar when I tread with a softer foot and quieter tongue.
My comfort items don’t match the comfort items of others. My daughter totes her stuffed blue cat with her everywhere she goes. Some people don’t wash clothes on New Year’s Day. I start each year eating black-eyed peas, collard greens, and herring. I avoid thirteen, and gravitate to any multiple of seven.
My comfort items come from fear, from lack of control, uncertainty. I have lived long enough to be touched at a deep, personal level by tragedies I could not control, so I want to avoid such events. I don’t know if carrying a gun is something I would do, but I haven’t been robbed. My pocketknife is the only blade I carry. I am safe in some ways, and vulnerable and fearful in others. I comfort myself in ways that work for me. Many song lyrics speak of fear, safety, our longing for comfort, the hunger we have for security, for warmth. Life has room for many comfort items and songs, even one that could be titled “Happiness is a warm gun—and a teddy bear.”

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