Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A History of Laziness

This weekend, my family and I made a pilgrimage to a town called Arab, Alabama, where my grandparents lived when I was a little girl.

If you’re not a local, you may be under the impression that the name of the town, A-R-A-B, is pronounced like a person from, say, Saudi Arabia. But it’s not. It’s AYE-rab, thankyouverymuch. Much in the way that Mobile, Alabama doesn’t sound like the word that means “moveable.” Or how, in NYC, only tourists pronounce the street called “Houston” like the city in Texas.

Throughout the South, you’ll find a slew of towns with Middle Eastern names, perhaps inspired by 19th Century orientalism. In the case of Arab, I always assumed that the founders wanted to give the place an exotic name, but Cairo, Memphis, Thebes and Alexandria were already taken by other Southern towns. So they just said, what the heck! Let’s just call it Arab! “Like those people with the towns with the names,” as Bill Cosby might’ve said.

I’ve since learned that the story is a bit more complicated. Originally, Arab was called “Arad” (as in, Mount). At some point, folks decided it was time to emblazon the town name on a water tower. But the poor painter was either dyslexic, illiterate, or both, because he ended up painting a “b” on the end of the word instead of a “d.” 

Now, paint is expensive. And climbing up a water tower is an awful lot of trouble. So the folks in the town figured it would be easier to just change the name of the town rather than repaint.

I would be willing to bet you that the person who made that call was one of my ancestors. Why? Because that is just the sort of thing that a member of our family would do. It’s not to say that we’re lazy per se. It’s that special breed of laziness where you’ll go to extraordinary lengths to take the so-called easy way out. And I must confessI’m more guilty of this than anyone I know (Paul can tell you. Just ask.). Anyone, that is, except my dad.

On the drive up to Alabama last week, my aunt reminded us of a classic “Kennedy moment” that illustrates this point. Ages ago, when he was in grad school, Dad decided to drive from Alabama to Delaware, where Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Jim were living at the time. It was a ’52 Plymouth, and he hadn’t gotten around to changing the oil since… well, ever.

Somewhere around Virginia, the crank shaft broke, and the car started hemorrhaging oil.
At this point, most people would stop and get the car fixed. Or sell it for scrap. Or take a bus. Or call home for a loan, or take any number of other well-reasoned measures. But that is not the Kennedy Way.

As fate would have it, the Plymouth conked out right in front of an Army-Navy supply store. This gave Dad an idea.  He went in and bought a gas mask. (You know, like you do when your car breaks down…)  His next stop was a filling station, where got a drum of, um, “slightly used” motor oil. There are many things that are good to get second hand, but motor oil is NOT one of them. Technically, you can use burnt oil-- if you don’t mind your car filling up with a cloud of toxic black smoke. But Dad had thought of that. With one hand, he held the nozzle of the gas mask out the window, to access some slightly-less-toxic air. Problem solved! "Changing the oil" is for chumps!

Not one to be deterred, my father set back out on the road to Delaware. Every fifteen minutes or so, he would have to get out and add another gallon or so of oil. (The car must’ve leaked more than the Exxon Valdez, but in those days, everybody was too busy eating asbestos to worry about such minor environmental hazards.) On the highway, thick black smoke billowed in the car’s wake, like a prop from a particularly elaborate Wagner opera.

Scene: The next morning.  A pleasant neighborhood near the University of Delaware, where my aunt was teaching at the time. In a theatrical cloud of black smoke, a man in a World War One-era gas mask emerged from a car held together with a pants belt (did I mention that the door, which was broken, was held together with a belt?). The next day in the faculty lounge, Aunt Jeanette must’ve been hard-pressed to explain why Mad Max—a fictional character who didn’t yet exist—had roared into their nice, clean neighborhood.

“Yep. That’s a genetic trait,” Paul noted, when I told him the story of the Plymouth.

Paul reminded me of our various stress-inducing moves, but especially the first one, when we moved in together. Instead of hiring a man with a van, I decided to move most of my stuff in a series of cab rides across Manhattan. Taxi drivers cursed my heritage as I filled their trunks will hastily-packed Hefty bags filled with my various belongings. (Classy, it was not.)  Paul later did the math and noted that I probably spent two hundred bucks on all those cab trips, which would’ve been enough to pay some movers, or rent a U-Haul. Or something. But again, that is not the Kennedy Way.

Some people just love the thrill that comes with doing things the hard way. Especially if this involves saving a few bucks. My dad used to go to ridiculous—and often costly—lengths to save even the smallest amount of money. For him, it was almost like a puzzle, or some elaborate live-action video game. For example, he had a little Cessna that he would regularly fly to another state to get slightly cheaper fuel. See, gas is a lot cheaper in Georgia, so… yeah.

At this point, you might say, “But, it seems like the time and money it would take to fly to Georgia would offset the…” Trust me. Don’t over-think it. Your head will explode.

Aunt Jeanette also loves to tell a story about one of the times she and my folks came to visit when I lived in Paris. Like most people who are, ahem, “careful with money,” my dad has an almost pathological dislike of taxis. Thus, he decided that it would be cheaper for the three of them to take a bus to the airport, rather than a taxi. I pointed out that the bus was roughly $10 per person (total: $30), and a taxi at the time was roughly… $40. Still. Dad insisted that it was “the principle of the matter.”

What principle?” I asked.

Dad gave me That Look. The one that must’ve struck fear in the hearts of his students when he was a school principal, and in principals when he was a superintendent. One of those looks that makes you feel very, very wrong about whatever statement you just made, no matter how rational or accurate it may be.

“You know good and well what I mean,” he said, in a tone and accent recalling the judge from My Cousin Vinny.

I didn’t, but I did.

To map out how to get to the right bus station, we had to spend almost an entire day doing a “dry run.” Then, on their final day, Jeanette and my folks schlepped their luggage in and out of several (elevator-free) Metro stations with complicated changes, and onto the bus, which takes a long and sinewy route (through Poland, I believe) to get to Charles de Gaulle.

When I told this story to my cousin Reid, he had a delightfully optimistic take on the whole misadventure. “But… you must’ve seen a lot of things you wouldn’t have otherwise seen!”

And Reid had a point. We did see a bus depot, several brothels, and any number of Gallic hobos that the shiftless, taxi-taking tourists usually miss.

Now that I think about it, it wouldn’t exactly be fair to say my family does things halfway (although that won’t stop it from being said). Instead, we live at the intersection of laziness, innovation, and sheer determination of will. It is a conceptual place that used to end in a “d,” but where reinventing the world is easier than repainting a water tower.


  1. This is very funny! And I hear it is true!

  2. I resemble that remark

  3. My family is from Arab. It was originally supposed to be called "ARAD" in honor of one of the founders, but was recorded as "ARAB" and it has stayed that way ever since.