Faced with cultural recalcitrance on such a massive scale, how do I know that the times are a-changing even here in our happy little burg? It’s the little things that give the game away. I was eating my lunch a few days ago in the Gnocchi Deli, something I do every day of the week, primarily because I hate change as much as the next person here and also because I lack imagination. The Gnocchi Deli is basically a hole in the wall you couldn’t force a pig to live in without half a dozen animal rights organizations and the municipal health department trying to close the place down posthaste, but they have the best mortadella sandwiches anywhere in town, and, in addition to this, the deli is the only Italian-themed eating establishment within the city limits actually owned by Italian Americans; Albanians own all the others, except for the two places owned by Mexicans (there’s great pizza at the Mexican places, though). As I sat there chewing upon my cud of miscellaneous pig parts, ruminating on the role pistachios play in the making of the perfect mortadella while listening to the radio emit the sound of a heavy metal band cacophonously smashing their instruments over the head of a stoned and semiliterate teenager from Shaker Heights, Ohio, to the tune, I think, of Cole Porter’s Night and Day, although it could have been J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #6 in B flat major; I don’t follow popular music much anymore, sorry—my tastes here are still more or less frozen in 1975 and Springsteen’s Born to Run album; our happy little burg’s music teacher came in and bid me a good day.
I am not a very sociable person, in the main; people who knew my father or know my younger brothers are often surprised when they meet me—they simply assume that gregariousness is the standard operating mode for all the male members of the Bashmachkin clan—and they seem somewhat perplexed to find that at least one member of the clan in not at all gregarious, but rather something of a dour, uncommunicative stick in the mud with better things to do with his time than sit around all day chatting with you. But if I am not a hail fellow well met, I do try to be civil to all and sundry, and then I surprised myself mightily by inquiring how her day was going, a question I don’t ask all that often, since, to be honest, I don’t really care how your day is going—I usually don’t care how my day is going, so long as it goes with minimal effort on my part. The other reason I don’t ask this question very often is that some people will take the opportunity that the question presents to tell you, often in excruciating detail, just how their day is going, up to and including the details of the colonoscopy they endured that very morning and all about the frightening thing the doctor found lodged in their viscera. You may provide your own drum roll here, if you feel the need. Suffice it to say that unless your gastroenterologist found glow in the dark Obama for President campaign posters epoxied to the walls of your large intestines, I don’t care what your doctor found stuck in your guts and I would just as soon not hear about it while I am trying to eat my mortadella sandwich. But our music teacher, a very nice and cheery lady known to one and all as Miss Susie, said that her day was going well for the most part, the even tenor of the hours complicated only by the need to get back to her studio and tune a dulcimer before one of her students arrived.
There may have been more to the conversation; I don’t know. If there was, I’ve forgotten it completely. In that moment, in that smallest split second of time, to say that all of my gasts took an extreme flabbering would be to make the understatement of the millennium, a fairly easy trick at this moment, given that we’re only seven years into the new millennium, but the principle is the same: I was stunned. I don’t believe I had ever contemplated the possibility that someone here in our happy little burg would ever use the word dulcimer in a sentence outside a high school English class discussing whether or not the Abyssinian maid in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ was angling for a record contract. And yet there Miss Susie stood, in about as nonpedagogical a setting as you can imagine, waiting patiently for her chicken salad sandwich, not only using the word in a normal conversation, but with an actual dulcimer stuffed somewhere in her tiny Main Street studio waiting for a tune-up and a tire rotation, along with, no doubt, a lute, a gamba, and an electric psaltery with iodized stereophonic amplification, the better for her students to blast out heavy metal covers of the greatest hits of 1139 at their graduation recitals.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Our town is changing, whether us old-timers like it or not. Thirty years ago, the word dulcimer would not have come up in any context in any conversation you could think of. I doubt that high school students would have known what the word meant, as most of them didn’t bother to read the poem for their 9 AM English class the next morning, choosing to spend the evening watching the prodigiously jiggling racks on Charlie’s Angels jiggling prodigiously instead. Today, dulcimers not only come up in everyday conversations, there’s someone in town that actually knows how to tune one. Now, I don’t expect that Main Street will suddenly fill with dulcimer repair shops run by medievalists named Lenny who spend the day discussing the comparative virtues of the Guelph and Ghibelline causes before they shake their heads apologetically and tell you that not only will your dulcimer not pass the mandatory state inspection, it will cost you $500 in parts and labor just to put the damn thing back together again, but I do expect that this ongoing gentrification will continue apace, and our decidedly blue-collar happy little burg will never be the same place again. I don’t think that new vegan restaurant is going to last, though; change is one thing, but having our sensibilities assaulted in this fashion is quite another. The side order of smug that comes with every entrée in that place leaves a bitter aftertaste in our mouths.