Voices: When you don't know nothin' from nothin'

By Joseph Bauers

Back in college, I was a star of the campus literary magazine. I wrote poetry — lots of it. My teacher, Lucien, was most gracious, noting occasional passages where I had stumbled on an arresting image with "Fresh!" or "Good!" noted in the margins. For the most part, though, I had simply imitated the great masters that I had read in Lucien's British Literature course. He would bracket my long, imitative stanzas and gently remind me, "Yeats echo here," or "Thomas echo."

In truth, I was no great shakes; in fact, I was well on my way to becoming the embodiment of a character described by Ernest Hemingway, a man who "wrote very long poems very rapidly." Once I had learned the tricks of metaphor, I could crank out those verses like batches of chocolate chip cookies. The only problem was, I really had nothing much to say. Had Lucien been totally honest, he might have said to me: "Look, kid, you don't know nothin' from nothin'. Go out in the world, earn your living, fall in love, get your heart broken, THEN see if you might have something to say."

But basking in the glory of the moment, I had no such thoughts. Friends reinforced this enhanced view of my skills. My stuff was "far out!" Some even compared me to a local artist who went by the unlikely name of Buzz. "Really," a friend said once, "your poetry reminds me of Buzz's paintings. So ... far out!" I took this as a compliment, given that everyone seemed very fond of Buzz.

I had never met this Buzz, but his legend preceded him. Finally, I found myself at a party where gallons of cheap wine flowed freely in an apartment that Buzz shared with several reprobate grad students. Mutual friends introduced us. Buzz was a most engaging chap, and no amateur at people skills. "I read your stuff all the time, man!" he said. "Wow! Far out!"

I beamed with pride that the great Buzz liked my work, and, my mother having raised no fool, I tried to reciprocate. I praised Buzz's legendary art work, none of which I had actually seen. I asked if perhaps he might show me something he was working on.

"That's a little tricky," Buzz said. "You see, I imagine how I might do a painting — the subject I'd choose, the composition, the colors, even the brush strokes. It's all up here," he said, pointing to his head with his index finger. "So, really, what's the point of actually doing the painting?" He smiled a devilish grin. Only then did it occur to me how odd it was that Buzz's habitat was totally devoid of any art work.

It was not long thereafter that life carried me from the ethereal world of Buzz and graduate school to the little town nestled between the two big rivers, one of which was the Mighty Mississippi. It was a high school of 100 students, and everyone on staff was the only — in my case, the only English teacher. Even the janitor, Mr. Schlinker, was the only one at his post, and let me tell you, one fine janitor was he. The school sparkled with his work. He lived in a small house adjacent to it, separated from his job only by a chain-linked fence. Sundays, he would wash out his mop heads in an old wringer washer, then set them out to dry against the fence, ready for another week of corralling other people's dirt.

One day, as I supervised the loading of students onto the bus after school, Mr. Schlinker and I chatted as he washed the glass in the big main door. Our conversation was interrupted by a testosterone driven youth who shouted out from the bus, "Hey, Harold, how are your MOPS doin'?" This was followed by a derisive laugh.

I wanted to go and grab the culprit off the bus, but Mr. Schlinker would have none of it. "Nah," he said, his arm making a gesture as if he were just sweeping away another pile of dirt. "He's just a kid. He don't know nothin' from nothin."

I found myself enamored of the phrase and noticed how it peppered Mr. Schlinker's conversation from time to time. For example, he often thought the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals didn't "know nothin' from nothin'" when his strategies failed to generate good results.

One day in the teacher lunch room, the subject of the upcoming 1968 presidential election came up. Talk centered on one candidate's promise to end the Vietnam War in a way that would guarantee "peace with honor." Some of the teachers wondered just what that might mean. Mr. Schlinker, a veteran of WWII, slammed his tray down as he left the room and muttered, "He don't know nothin' from nothin'!" And he was right—the "Peace with Honor" candidate let the war drag on for years.

I have thought about Mr. Schlinker from time to time, even though he is no doubt long gone by now. I have not thought much about Buzz, however. I have no idea what he ended up doing — politics, maybe.

As a teacher, I tried to emulate my mentor Lucien as best I could, though there has always been just a little of Mr. Schlinker lurking around the edges. And that, from my point of view, was not such a bad thing.

Joseph Bauers is a freelance writer in Champaign and can be contacted at j.bauers@comcast.net.

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