We found ourselves in between washing machines last week, the old one having died before the replacement was actually purchased. On laundry day I drove 20 miles into Belfast. To be honest I wasn't terribly upset about this. I had a few correspondence-course lessons to read and grade while I waited. I nobly shouldered the two big bags, secure in the knowledge that the foliage along the route was breathtaking, and the next couple of hours would probably be crisis-free.
I'm slowly starting to realize, or to trust, that there are a fair number of people like me in Central Maine -- that is to say, folks who have come here by choice, in order to simplify, to design and try to live just the kind of life they ought to. One does meet young adults who are as well-versed in diaper rash and school districts as they are in chain saws and snow removal. But it is a frontier, of sorts -- and I guess the price we pay for all this individualism is the amount of time we have to spend on making a living. Now, I didn't really expect to meet any kindred spirits at the laundromat in Belfast; in fact, I was pretty tired. I expected some alone time.
A mother and daughter came in and started sorting and piling at the next table. I was delighted by them both, and felt fortunate to have the paraphernalia of my lessons with which to look busy while I watched them. The mom was quite short, not more than five feet, and flamboyantly redheaded and freckled. She had a laughing, elvish air -- except that her eyes, strikingly, seemed to belong to a wiser and older being. They were bright, yet deep grey, creased and wry. The little girl was about five, and a bit darker -- auburn instead of fiery red -- and perhaps a bit less exuberant, but clearly thought her mom was the coolest person in the entire universe. I tried not to stare too obviously.
The mother was teaching the daughter, of all things, the technique of the Old Shell Game, using three bottle caps and a little red pill. She would say "Timing, honey!" and "Don't watch your hands, punkin," and "Fold that pinky under.." while the girl practiced with tongue-clamped diligence.
I was so busy pretending not to watch, in fact, that I utterly missed the fact that I was being watched myself. "Oh, I've read Henry George," said the mother, suddenly appearing at my opposite side. She sat down and picked up my copy of Progress and Poverty. "Jeez, that takes me back to a weird old time in my life. The guy I was with back then was a sleight-of-hand artist, and I think he gave me this book to distract me while he played some tricks." She shook the book a few times as if its ideas rattled with a familiar sound. "Y'know, I wasn't feeling the need to sleep, all that much, in those days, and I think I must've read this thing just about straight through." She laid a finger beside her nose and gave a small sniff, as if to explain.
I asked her if she were a sleight-of-hand artist too, and she rolled her eyes. "I can pretty much direct the eyes away from the main business at hand, yeah." I followed her eyes to the little girl, who was struggling to retrieve the little red pill from beneath one of the washing machines. "Monica! Jeez." Monica's mom produced a package of Sudafed from her bag and popped out another pill. "Really. If you lose a piece, you just gotta move on to the next, you know?"
Monica accepted the pill sheepishly. "I keep gettin on the wrong side of it." But she went right back to her practice.
"My name's Ramona." She thrust out a hand and shook mine, with a bracingly tight grip. "My husband and I and the gal moved up here last year, after the bastards subdivided the wonderful farm we were living on in Ohio."
I introduced myself, explaining that I'd just moved there too, with wife and boy, from New York City.
"I think I could've liked New York," Ramona mused, "I've only visited. Lots of decent magicians there... So, you're teaching a course on Progress and Poverty? Are you a Henry Georgist, Lindy?"
I allowed as how I was, suddenly feeling akin to being a Shaker, or a Theosophist. I asked Ramona what she ended up thinking of George's ideas.
"Well, I thought his remedy would work, y'know, I thought it really made sense, that what people make with their own labor belongs to them, but nobody made the land, just the whole village made it worth money to be there, so -- wow, I thought it was a pretty smart idea that could actually work. Of course, there are lots of pretty smart ideas that could work, I think. You know what really impressed me about that book? What really made me think this guy's kind of a genius?"
"It's where he said that economics is boring. To me that's what sets this guy apart." Ramona got up and seized the three bottle caps from Monica, whose eyes lit up. While she spoke, she began to whip the caps around, and neither her little apprentice nor I had the slightest chance of following that pill. "The odds are definitely against you!" Ramona grinned. "But no, I'm serious. Why would I have even remembered a book about economics? Feh! It's really sorta the opposite of a sexy subject. No, I mean the exact opposite. Where is it, honey?"
Monica, knowing enough of her craft to know that it wouldn't be where she picked, cannily pointed instead at me. I chose, of course, the wrong one. Ramona went on, talking as fast as her fingers: "Seriously, though, here's Henry George. He develops this very detailed argument, through this whole book, his logic is impeccable, and then at the end he says to us, look, I've shown you how to solve your economic problems, just apply this and get on with things, stop even thinking about this, because economics, my friends, is boring. See what I mean?"
Monica started to remove their first load from the washer, which was a long reach for her. I realized that my two loads had long since stopped spinning. I got clumsily busy removing baby clothes and towels. "I guess I see your point," I said, "But I'm not sure George actually said that."
"Oh, he didn't say it in so many words, silly! Monica, come here, I need some quarters." Ramona matter-of-factly pulled one, two, three, four quarters out from behind Monica's ears, where Monica, obviously, quite expected them to materialize, but she smiled and clapped each time. "He said it in his last chapter: beyond the problem of social life there lies the higher and deeper problem of the individual life. I remember. That last chapter really made an impression on me."
Little Monica went back to her laundry-table stage, but this time she beckoned to me. Wiping her hands professionally on the front of her overalls, she said, "Follow the red pill, I bet you can't!" She shifted the caps around for a while, rather deftly, really, revealing the little red pill here and there, and then she gave me an opportunity to choose, while her mom, loading a dryer, watched with pride. I picked. The pill wasn't there, of course, although I did sort of see the technique through which it came not to be. I didn't let on, but Monica said, "Rats. My pinkies are too small!"
"Honey, how can they be too small, if they keep getting in the way?" Ramona winked at her. "You've almost got it!"
I ventured to comment, "She's going to make lots of money, before long."
"Ohh, no, I hope not!" Ramona stopped in mid-load. "No, no, that's not what it's about, and she knows it. Nimble fingers are useful for many things, but I don't believe in gambling, anymore. I never did believe in it, really, although I certainly used to do it." She bit the inside of her lip, as if she were thinking better of what she was about to say.
"I see. So, no mother and daughter streetcorner hustles, huh? Wow, the two of you could clean up in Central Park, I think."
"I'm sure we could, but no thanks! No ill-gotten gains for Monie and Monnie. In fact if I ever find out she's extorted so much as a nickel from any other kid, she's gonna be in trou-bull! Right, my darling?"
Monica gave us a very big and sober nod, but there was a sparkle behind it.
The three of us went back to our respective tasks than, but before long Ramona came up, finger pointing. "Come to think of it, economics is a lot like sleight-of-hand, isn't it? I mean, I think a lot of what people think of as politics, economics or whatever, is really about distracting the people's eyes from the real business at hand. And magic is always boring once you know the trick!"
We got to talking about other things, local matters, and the dryers spun quickly. Monica did a couple of card tricks before they left -- pretty easy ones, but her little hands did the shuffling deftly and she narrated the trick with bright-eyed panache: "And so, one robber went in the house by the back door... and one robber just walked right on in the front door, and the other robber squeeeeezed through a window..."
We exchanged addresses. I'll have to look up the road they live on in the Maine Gazeteer, as I imagine she'll have to do with my road -- but they live some thirty miles on the opposite side of Belfast from us, and I wonder whether we'll ever run into them again. Still, I'm not sure I shouldn't just cancel delivery on that new washing machine.
October 11, 1997
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