Some stories might be lies but are still worth telling. Several weeks ago my friend Gina, who works at the island health food store, told me a cautionary tale about her great 80 something-year-old aunts. She swears it’s true.
Let’s call them Gertrude and Delilah. They live together in Winnipeg and grew up as hardy, windblown prairie gals wearing ironed print dresses, working each day except Sundays, harvesting a life from the land. They still wear those print dresses, but now adorn themselves with modest Avon rhinestone brooches. In the crooks of their wizened elbows they each haul a massive black handbag loaded with a life’s worth of whatever one might need.
Two months ago, Gert and Del decide they need a little extra cash for the holidays so they hop on a bus and head desert south to the glitz and glam of Las Vegas. They’re going try their luck on the slot machines; heck, at their age, what do they have to lose, right?
Now, according to Gina, they’ve never been out of Manitoba. The radius of their life has been rich if not wide. This was a big trip and although they made it, it plum tuckered them out. Still, they settle into their room at the Hilton, have a cup of tea and then, with a lock-and-load attitude, they head downstairs to try their luck.
Well, after an hour it all becomes a bit much for Delilah. The first round or two of lime daiquiris and bundles of quarters was fun, but she’s had enough. Feeling a little lightheaded, she heads back up to their room. Not so for Gertrude. She’s determined to milk that slot machine the way she used to squeeze it out of her cow, Betsy. She cranks that shaft like she’s 20 again. But after another two hours with no wins, her Canadian frugality sets in. She knows when to quit. Besides she doesn’t want to come across as some gambling addict, not in the winter years of her life. What would Del think if she got in after midnight?
So she heads towards the elevator, purse firmly hidden under sagging breasts. It’s weighed down with a plastic Dominion grocery bag full of change. She figures tomorrow will be her day. The bell rings and the doors slide open. She steps in and carefully pushes the button for the 10th floor. Just as the doors are closing, two enormously large black men step in. Gertrude, our heroine, stands all of a shrunken four-and-three-quarters feet beside them. Her knuckles wrap tightly around her bag. She’s probably had that purse for more than 30 years and polishes it up nice every mid-January when its too cold to do much else but that and knit. There’s no way in hell is she going to give it up now.
Then she hears it: “Hit the floor!”
Well, at moments like this the body just seems to take over. Gertrude, feisty salt-of-the-earth widow; Gertrude, who has never been within a foot of an Afro-American; Gertie, like an ungentled horse, lurches backwards, throws her purse mid air, and slams her 105-pound body on the carpeted floor of the elevator of the hotel–hundreds of quarters pelting her from above.
“Excuse me, ma’am? Are you okay?” says the one guy as he helps her up. “What happened?”
To which she replies, “But you said, ‘Hit the floor.'”
Horrified, he responds, “I said ‘Hit the fourth floor.”
The next morning, they’re quite packed and ready to leave when a contrite but broadly smiling hotel manager arrives at their suite door. His arms are loaded with a splendid bunch of tall red roses. He hands the astonished Gertrude the bouquet when she notices that every rose has a $100-bill wrapped around its stem. It is a good-sized bundle of roses, too. She opens the card and reads, “Thanks for the best laugh I’ve had in years!” Wait for it… “Signed, Eddie Murphy.”
She looks up and says: “Who’s Eddie Murphy?”
You read it here first. Look for it on the David Letterman show, or in the next slapstick comedy you rent. Once again Canadians come through as a source of inspiration, ridicule and delight.
Having told and retold this story at every dinner party I’ve recently been invited to, I’ve come to realize that most of us live like Delilah and Gertrude, on constant alert. We live what we know and when we take a risk to try something new we step out into another scary world, one filled with challenge, discovery and occasionally humility–rarer still, reward. I think of all the social conditioning that wound Gertrude up into herself, including a lifetime of not having seen someone with a different skin colour than her own, living her outer reality through television and newspaper statistics, and yet still driven to want to bust out and try her luck despite the odds.
Stepping more uncomfortably into our protagonist’s sensible brown loafers, I imagine what life is like for a vulnerable elderly person in a world that no longer respects age and wisdom; as a hypervigilant woman, whose body is constantly on guard. Then I realize as a queer male I also clutch closer what is dearest to me when walking through non-gay ghettoed spaces. As a male I can often forget about my safety, or at times even fake it, chin jutting out in subtle defiance.
Whether it is ageism, sexism, classism, racism or homophobia, we live in a world of propagated fear, where we won’t recognize each other’s vulnerabilities until one of us is flat on the floor.