We were in the Adirondacks for the long weekend. It was our last morning, so Nancy and I went to one of our favorite breakfast spots, the Country Bear, a mom and pop diner that features amazing french toast, but also has its own north country version of Cheers going on at the counter.
On this particular day, the Country Bear is packed, and the husband and wife who run the place seem a bit overwhelmed. I think the Rosh Hashanah long weekend wasn’t on their radar. At one point, Louise, their friend who sits at one of the counter seats, has to get up and bus some tables. They also ask her husband, Ralph, if he’d be a dear and go out to the mini mart up the road and fetch some paper towels and napkins. Nancy and I aren’t in any particular hurry, so we just wait in line and enjoy the show.
Ralph is a crusty old cut-up who cracks jokes and then looks around the room to see if the other customers caught wind of his wit. Louise just hustles around looking for things she can do. She refills the plastic syrup cups. She pours coffee. She keeps apologizing to customers, reminding them that she doesn’t really work there. She’s just helping out.
We finally get seated at a booth and Louise brings us some coffee. “I can’t take your order. That’s for the professionals,” she notes. We assure her we’re in no rush. As we relax with our coffees, we see a pick-up pull into the lot. Out steps a man with a decidedly north country fashion sense. He sports multi-pocketed camouflage pants and a fisherman’s vest underneath a checked flannel jacket. His thinning white hair is pulled back into a long ponytail, and tufts of curly whiskers spring from various regions of his face and neck. I nod toward him as he exits his truck and tell Nancy that when I retire, that’s the look I’m leaning toward. She lets me know that I will then also be leaning toward a new life partner. This is the same “don’t even think about it” response that I get when I tell her I really want to sell the house and buy a Winnebago. I will be rolling solo.
As this fellow enters, he’s greeted simultaneously by Ralph, Louise and one of the owners. “Earl!” they all shout. Ralph actually grunts his welcome and nods his head toward the empty stools beside him. “This one’s Lou’s, but she’s too busy being the help,” he says. He looks around to see if she heard him. Then, with his chin, he motions for Earl to take the end stool. Earl skips the waiting line and plops down. Soon he’s in a loud conversation with Ralph about “stupid know-it-alls.” He tells a story about a man who used to lecture people about how gentle Kodiak bears are. “He used to show off and kiss these bears. Know what happened?”
“Can’t bear the suspense.” Ralph scans the room to see if anyone caught that one.
“Yeah, well I’ll tell ya. Man just got killed by a Kodiak. Yeah. It’s on video, too. They were takin’ video of him with the bear, and then the bear attacked and started eatin’ him.”
I’m somewhat happy that my french toast hasn’t arrived yet. Soon, the daughter of the owners arrives. She thinks she’s just there to grab some cash from the register, but Louise informs her that she’d better stay. “Your Mom and Dad are in the weeds, and Ralph and I have to leave.” The daughter sighs.
“Hey, I saved you a trip to the mini mart,” Ralph offers. Then he says his goodbyes to Earl. “How do you like my new hat?” he asks, yanking on the bill of his purple and black trucker.
“It’s nice,” Earl concedes, “How do you like mine?”
“I like it more than the ponytail. You look like Willie Nelson. Speakin’ of in the weeds.” He scans the room and bobs his eyebrows. I chuckle at that one, and Ralph nods, congratulating me for catching his parting shot.
When Ralph and Louise depart, Earl is still in a chatty mood. He strikes up a conversation with the daughter. “So what year are ya now, darlin’?”
“I’m a senior, believe it or not.”
“Wow! A senior already. Are you excited about graduating?
“I guess. A little nervous about what I’m gonna do next.”
“Oh, don’t be nervous. You’ve got a whole world out there. You gotta look at it like an adventure. You’ve got unlimited possibilities.”
This is a more appetizing conversation than the one with Ralph, but it’s also shorter. She has orders to take and tables to bus. She leaves Earl looking for his next chat partner. He swivels in his seat and smiles down at us from his perch. Nancy stirs the air in her empty coffee cup. She seems unnerved by this future me. I want to reassure her that I was kidding. I avert my eyes from Earl. But then I can’t help it. I look back. He’s smiling at us.
I think it’s a testament to Earl’s skill at conversation that neither Nancy nor I can now recall how he first engaged us. We are both introverts, and though I know that if I want to have more story possibilities, I really have to be more willing to engage in conversations, right then, I did not relish a chat with the Earl of the Bear. Nonetheless, within moments, he had cast, lured gently, hooked, and reeled us in. Within the first two minutes of the conversation, he was talking about unions, Jimmy Hoffa, the weathermen (of the 60s), teachers, and Nazi youth . It was the teachers’ union and Nazi confluence that set my barb. “Are you somehow equating unions and Nazi youth?” I asked, trying not to sound too argumentative.
“Oh God no,” he said. “God, no. I was in a union for 40 years. No, no, I was just saying that the teachers’ union convinced Hoffa that the Teamsters should associate with a “women’s profession” because they would promote a positive image for unions on an impressionable portion of our population. God, I’m glad you asked that. You see, that’s why a conversation is so important in this country. We’re filled with mistrust and misunderstandings. I’m so glad you asked that. No, I’ve been in the teacher’s union for a long time. I’d never want to equate it with the evil that happened in Germany.”
At that point I was relieved, Nancy was feeling better, and we were both helplessly flopping in Earl’s conversation net. It’s not really correct to call it a conversation. We mostly listened and nodded, as Earl took us through his career. He had been a teacher on Long Island. A student OD’d on heroin on his first day as a teacher. He’d been giving a biology lecture to 1000 teachers on the day John Kennedy was shot. You don’t forget a day like that. It’s a shame what education has become. Way too much testing he thought. Fourth graders don’t need testing. They need to work with real things. They need to build models and go outside more. “Have you ever tried to teach a ten-year-old a math concept?”
“Well, uh, I am a 5th grade teacher.”
“You’re a teacher? Oh, well then you know some of what I’ve been saying, right?”
Earl had been talking for about fifteen minutes without finding out that I was a teacher. This is what I mean when I say it wasn’t exactly a conversation. I had learned a lot about Earl, though. At the age of 4 he had lived in the Amazon region of Brazil. By age 6 he spoke five languages. He taught science and nature. He brought EMT training to all of the ambulance workers in the north country. He led nature hikes for middle schoolers. He worked at a wilderness camp in the Adirondacks. He had led a 31-day canoe trip with teenagers “just because they wanted one more summer at the camp.” He was 85 years old. He had gone to NYU. He used to sit in on classes at five different schools in New York, just by asking professors for permission. He didn’t need to take notes in class. He remembered everything he heard.
He mostly talked, and we mostly listened for the next half hour. I ate all of my french toast, and Nancy had all of her pancakes and sausage. Earl had eaten none of his spinach omelet or bacon. “Ah, my food’s almost always cold before I get to it.” You don’t say.
About an hour and a half after we had arrived, Nancy had reached her Earl limit. “Well, we really have to get on the road.” We stood to leave, but Earl had more to say. I noticed that he resorted to a question whenever he wanted to prolong the conversation. “Whereabouts do you live? Connecticut? Oh, I taught on Long Island for 25 years. Right across the sound from you.” We talked (or listened) for another 15 minutes, in the reverse of the usual lecture positions. Earl sat on his stool, while his audience stood in front of him. He had learned at the feet of the scientists who worked with his grandmother. All of them were giants in their field, studying the ecosystems of the Amazon basin. He had gone to college when he was 16 and only about this tall. He put his hand at about the five-foot level. I suggested that Earl should write down his life story (perhaps I was trying to get him to stop talking). No, he wasn’t going to write a book about his life, though. He was leaving that for his kids. They could write it from all of his journals. He pulled out a small pocket-sized leather-bound notepad. “Got hundreds of these,” he said, tapping the cover. I imagined the task that lay ahead for one of his kids. Presumably they had heard a lot of what we had just learned. I’m going to guess that they have heard it more than once. He’s a teacher, and he can’t stop teaching, even at 85.
I imagine that I will not look like Earl when I’m 85. I want to stay with my wife. I will also not be looking for an audience in a diner. Too shy. Still, I have to admit that having written all of this down in the hopes that someone will sit down and read it, I’m really not that different from Earl.
I guess I’ll just go ahead and eat that cold omelet now.