Accompanied by my brother, Bob Peal, in August 2007, I made a pilgrimage to our hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, while doing research for my second memoir, The Home for the Friendless. Things had been going very well, and everyone we met that week was courteous and helpful in our quest for information and records regarding our wacky childhood.
On the last day of the trip, we went to L Avenue which turned out to be another wonderful “find” since we discovered three important locations there: the one-room house with no plumbing where five of us had lived; the inviting corner store that housed Hassan Murray’s Market where we could charge our groceries, and the tiny little house we rented when Bob was born in 1933. That mini house is located on L Avenue, about three houses from a dead end. (Going the opposite way, L Avenue crosses the RR tracks where we lived in another hovel when Bob was one-year-year old. We moved a lot.)
The “dollhouse” where Bob was born ends in a very tight, crowded cul-de-sac. Tiny houses line the end curve and are set close together on both sides of the street. When we realized it did not go through, we also found that it was very hard to turn the car around on that narrow road. Since no cars were in site except those parked against the curb, I said “Bob, just park across this other driveway and let me pop out to take a couple of photos while you turn the car around. I’m sure whoever lives here will understand if we tell them you were born here 74 years ago.” And I jumped out with my camera and moved farther away so I could get the entire little dwelling in my viewfinder.
Suddenly, a car came zipping up that short street right against Bob’s hood so he couldn’t budge another inch. A mean-looking wretch-of-woman rolled down her window and screamed at me, “DON’T EVER BLOCK SOMEONE’S DRIVEWAY!”
I said, “I’m sorry. We’re from out-of-state and used to live in one of these houses when we were little, and we’re taking a picture. My brother is trying to turn the car around.”
She didn’t care what I said. She begrudgingly backed up and turned into another driveway so Bob could maneuver his way out of a tight spot. When he was halfway past the driveway where she had temporarily parked, she started to back down toward Bob’s car while he was still creeping to avoid other parked cars. Then she screamed again at the air, “GET THE F*** OUTTA MY WAY!”
By that time Bob was out of her range and he drove way down the street and parked in an open slot. She was now very close to where I was standing to get my picture. She struggled to turn her wheel so she could go up her own driveway two houses away from the one we were photographing. She yelled at me again.
“YOU TWO ARE SURE THE SURPRISE IN A HAPPY MEAL!”
Was that a regional insult or what?
I snapped off a couple of fast pictures and marched down the hill to my brother’s car. I was actually a bit shaky, but Bob never heard what she was saying. He only knew she had been screaming at us and said, “What the hell was that all about?” When I repeated her insults, he was dumbfounded. It was hard to get this awful woman off of my mind.
But, eventually both of us started using her sentences and laughing ourselves silly. If someone was driving too slowly in front of us, I said so no one outside could hear, “Get the f*** outta my way.” In the hotel room in Omaha if I set my suitcase too far out into the room my brother yelled, “Don’t ever block someone’s path.” If he was being silly and said something stupid on purpose I said, “You sure are the surprise in a Happy Meal.”
That one still cracks me up. Whatever in the world does it imply?
Eventually, we got over her rudeness and invented scenes that we thought might work like knocking on her door and confessing that we were from Time Magazine doing a survey on the friendliness of small town people. We were going to ask to take her picture and send her a copy of that issue so we also needed the correct spelling of her name (we already knew her address), but we wanted to thank her for helping us get a real good story. In other words, we got a lot of mileage out of that woman’s nasty, inhospitable performance. I think she either had serious behavioral issues or had just come from church.
* * *
story and illustration by Betty Auchard