When you think on it, it’s amazing just how much of nothing can go on in a little town. In the 1970s and 80s my hometown of Monette, Arkansas had at least a half dozen places dedicated to doing nothing. If you wished to laggard about and pick up on the latest second-hand hearsay, there was a group and a place just for you.
Claud Earl Barnett’s parts store was headquarters for some of the older, more refined, town loafers. It was an exclusive club, and the store was configured so patrons could park around back. Those who took a view from main street were none the wiser who was there. When I was 7 years old I bought my mom a birthday gift at Claud Earl’s. It was one of those license plate-like pieces you screw to your front bumper. I got her one with the image of a red devil that read: Light My Fire! Oddly, it never made its way to adornment on the front of mom’s ‘74 Chevy Impala.
Farmers had two primary loafing hot spots. The offices at Keich-Shauver Gin were appointed with 15 wooden chairs around the periphery where some of the more legitimate loafing took place and the topics focused mostly on farming. Gin manager Raymond Miller was one of the smartest men in town, the kind of man a kid could listen to forever.
Not a hundred yards south at Ball-Hout Implement was where the real cut ups and the tallest tales got told. Of course, it was my own father’s go-to place of belonging. Oftentimes, I thought, the center of his world.
Loafing hours started at 6 a.m. and ended at 5 in the afternoon. Ball-Hout, known more commonly to locals as the International (Harvester) Place, was the only location in town with a room dedicated entirely to hosting town loafers. In retrospect, it was some of the most brilliant marketing of the day. A rectangular room with two extra-long couches and a couple of vinyl cushion chairs, there was an industrial-sized coffee pot that parts manager Doyle “One-Eye” Yates freshened on the hour. All this across from the long parts counter and a small room where you could buy Nacona boots and toy tractors. The store and its loafing customers were so amalgamated, there was a huge, framed art piece above the parts counter featuring a Western bar scene with dozens of characters, each named for store employee, or a special customer. I spent hours admiring the piece in the near 18 years I accompanied my dad there. It hung until the store closed 40 years later.
In many ways, loafing with dad at the International Place taught me a lot about what it meant to be a man. One day you’d hear stories of uncommon valor from some of World War IIs bravest veterans like J.L. Kimbrell or Tinkie Wimberley. The next, a rambling tale from some of town’s most lovable drunks.
It was in the International Place where I learned that in casual settings a man can cross his legs one of two ways — with one leg perpendicular straight across the other or hanging down in a more feminine sort of way. (Can you even say that in today’s world?) Some of the toughest men in town went with the feminine style, and by four years old I was replicating their behavior — a young boy’s admiration for some of America’s finest. A little of each lives on in every child who ever loafed there with his dad.
Those in a certain club loafed at the emergency medical ambulance service in the back of City Hall. It was mostly about card playing there, a game called pitch. Charles Kelley our town’s only garbage man (he like being called a garbologist) – beloved for his colorful style umpiring softball games and for his occasional public performances imitating Elvis Presley – would frequently slip away from work to play pitch, despite the unease and constant awareness the mayor’s office was just two doors down the hall.
There was a dedicated spot between two old elm trees on Main Street next to Flannigan’s General Store where the oldest men sat on wooden benches, recalled their glory days and enjoyed the occasional drink of cold, clean water from a hand-pumped well. Younger folk named the area for a part of the old men’s anatomy and make-believe stories of their waning sexual vitality.
Mountain View isn’t so different from Monette. My knowledge base doesn’t go back that far here, but friends tell me that Lancaster’s was the hot spot for all the local town gossip. It’s easy imagining a bunch of old men in faded overalls sitting around an old wood stove telling the signature tall tales that are so abundant here. With Lancaster’s in retirement, will a new spot evolve?
Is there a difference in loafing and piddling?
In a column for Southern Living, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg makes the distinction.
While loafing is more of a social affair absent of intent or outcome, piddling may have goals and may be pursued as a solo activity.
“It is hard to explain to begin with because piddling is neither one thing or another, but something in between. It is not rest, not something that can be done with your feet on an ottoman or as you recline in a Posturepedic. But then, neither is it work, something that one toils at, sweats at, something one needs a break from for lunch or coffee. It is certainly not something for which one should ever be paid, and absolutely not something that one does while watching a clock.”
See you in next week’s newspaper.
(Steve Watkins is a reporter/columnist for the Stone County Leader. Write him at email@example.com)