There's Nothing Like The "N" Word


It was hotter than a bitch yesterday.

Let me pause for a second here and comment on the above statement. We all have used it, haven't we? It's one of those time-worn phrases that says so much and everybody understands, but exactly what are we talking about here? How hot exactly is a bitch? And are we talking about a bitch in heat, and if so are we speaking of a pooch or the female of our species? There's a litany of these tossed-off comments that have always befuddled me. Like, "It's colder than a well-digger's ass out there." Really. What is the surface temp of a well-digger's ass, pray tell? And have you ever grabbed a well-digger by the ass and given it the old "let me check your temperature" squeeze? I've never met a well-digger myself, but I assume that because of the nature of the work they'd tend to be burly no-nonsense types and an impromptu fondling of their buttocks, even for an asexual check of the temperature, would result in a bunch of fives to the face. See what I mean? Ancient homilies such as these might have made sense in the Middle Ages, when there may have been a well digger in every family but not now, so why do we persist in using them?

Which brings me back to the original point of my story: it was hotter than a bitch yesterday, and I hankered a cold brew to take the edge off the heat. I remembered a saloon a few minutes away that served shorties, beer in 7 oz. bottles that because of their size didn't go tepid in the bottle. Not many places serve them any more, they're just not practical, but they were very popular back in the day when working class Americans enjoyed a cold one after a hard day on the job but they didn't want to have their brewskis go warm on them. Hard working guys like frosty-assed well diggers. I took the short drive to luxuriate in the tavern's air-conditioned comfort, maybe take in the Cubs game (nothing like a little self-flagellation on a blistering summer's day) and just basically take the edge off the temperature.

The tavern was empty, except for a bartender who looked a few days over 21 and whose face hadn't as of yet seen a razor, and a mangy mutt of a man who was in the process of delivering a lecture to the lad. He looked like trouble, so I sat at the other end of the long bar and ordered a shorty. It was ice-cold and incredibly refreshing and I'd have it downed in a long gulp or two while it was still frigid. That's why you order a shorty.

It looked like I had made the right choice: quiet tavern, properly air-conditioned, plenty of shorties in the cooler and the hapless Cubs floundering on the field. I could be alone with my shorties and my thoughts. Nirvana.

Au contraire. The mutt at the other end of the bar now realized he had a wider audience, me, besides the green behind the ears bartender. He stood on the tips of his toes and raised his voice to a quiet bellow, staring in my direction as he commenced his harangue. "Yeah, that dog o' mine, he's mean. And he's nasty."

I groaned. So much for a quiet hour or two with me and my shorties.

"Yeah," he continued. I caught him out of the corner of my eye. I was the other gray-haired eminence in the room. He was searching for support from one of his own generation. Then he dropped the bomb.

"Yeah, that dog is mean and he's nasty and he hates NIGGERS." He emphasized the word loudly as he stared directly at me.

He chuckled. "Niggers hate dogs. And MY dog hates niggers."

I'm 64 years old and heard a lot of that kind of dumb-ass talk years ago, especially in surroundings like this, but it had been so long that I'd actually heard someone vocally express what I know a lot of people still feel deep down in the private hells of their souls that it rocked me back. Why would he indulge me with his racist fantasies? I suspected that alcohol had a lot to do with this guy's polemic, but I also wondered what exactly prompted him to think that I was one of his kind? I mean, did I look the part, like some sort of sheet-shrouded time-warp Klansman with a burning cross in one hand and a noose in the other? I ignored him, taking another hit from the shorty which had suddenly gone sour. Unfortunately he took my silence as tacit approval and ramped up his invective.

"If my daddy were alive today and he knew we had a NIGGER for President, why he'd roll over in his grave!" A statement which gave me some relief. The mighty oak from which this tiny acorn had sprouted was at least dead and buried. I wondered exactly what the dinner table conversation had been like when this geriatric white supremacist was an adolescent lyncher-in-training. It must have been special.

Which brings me around to the point of this tale: words do carry weight, whether it's things like a well-digger's ass or a nigger, and we had best be advised that when we open our mouths and spew whatever it is we spew that there are consequences. Or at least should be, and that's the problem in today's America, the old "sticks and stones" debate. We put too much emphasis on the physical on not enough on the intellectual. Beating the literal shit out of someone is an egregious offense, but name-calling is a-okay. It's only words after all.

Consequences . . . I stared at the dregs of my beer and pondered what I should do. Should I express righteous outrage and punch him in the nose? Or should I engage him in civil debate about the archaic nature of his opinions, and point out the magnificent contributions made by African-Americans to this great country? Having worked over 30 years in the bar business, I knew that his type only understood the punch in the nose, and also that he would not read it as righteous indignation but as just a simple pop to the proboscis. He wouldn't even understand why I'd slugged him, so why bother? Nothing I could do would change his mind, or his opinion, whether it was a conk on the noggin or a blistering  j'accuse. In this case silence would be golden.

I downed the last slug of my beer, still icy-cold (that's why you order shorties), tossed a couple of bucks on the bar and walked out. Closing the door behind me I thought I heard him mutter "nigger lover."

I felt pretty good about that, and walked a bit taller as I crossed the street to my car.

But it was still hotter than a bitch.

Lenny Palmer 7/31/2011


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