I started out with nothing, I still have most of it


Sondra Ashton

Without trying to eavesdrop, it is funny what one overhears. A couple weeks ago, on my way to Washington, I stopped for a fish sandwich at a diner in Ritzville. As my order to-go was being prepared, I stood back out of the way. I wasn't really paying attention to anything, when I overheard a conversation from behind the counter. The pony-tailed manager harangued his youthful employee.

"The orders are backing up. Ya gotta work harder. How ya gonna get anywhere in life. Ya gotta work harder."

Youthful Employee stood with his mouth open and his knuckles dragging. The words washed over him. I saw him glance at the clock.

At that point the manager looked up and caught my eye. By this time I was rather enjoying the scene and had a grin spread across my face.

"You heard that, didn't you?" he asked. "I'm right, aren't I?" I nodded my head. He rolled his eyes and shrugged.

As I drove down the road with my sandwich, I wondered if Youthful Employee would last through the shift.

Ritzville is a rich place for being a party to other's conversations. On my way back to Montana I stopped at Jake's on the west end of town for a sit-down meal. This time I found myself listening to a good ol' boy with a rich North Carolina accent. He was wearing overalls and cowboy boots. I'd say he was in his 80s and definitely hard of hearing. Sitting in the farthest corner of the joint, I could hear every word he said. I tried to block his voice but some things came through anyway.

"If folks would just stick to the ways we always done things, we wouldn't be having troubles in this country," he enlightened his wife, his daughter and all the rest of us. "I seen one of them bumper stickers on one of them new cars. It said 'Green and Clean.'" He said the words as if they were dirty. "'Green' is nothing but a waste of our good hard-earned money."

Yesterday morning I walked into Jean's Bakery in Chinook. The men's coffee group was gathered around a large table and the first thing I heard was: "Now that we've solved all the world problems, we can fix the economy."

"Oh I don't know about that," was the reply. "We've been broke all our lives. I see no reason to change anything now."

"We've just got to work harder," another man said. Everybody laughed.

About then my friends Dick and Jane walked in and sat down. They'd been stuck behind a long line of cars waiting in road construction. Dick is a walking billboard. Every jacket he owns is adorned with embroidered mottoes. Today's jacket announced "I started out with nothing and I still have most of it."

Maybe it was the jacket or maybe it was my recent collection of overheard conversations that reminded me of a treasured postcard that I found in Missoula during another recession in the early 1980s. It shows a bulldozer rooting in a hill of dirt with a coffee stand off to the side bearing the sign: "Fred's Fill Dirt and Croissants."

I asked Dick about how I should repair the driver's seat of my van. He said it would be easier to get a new one. That reminded him that he had a biker buddy who owned a junkyard.

Dick said, "You should meet him. He is looking for a girlfriend. I know you'd like him."

For a moment I actually considered it. It's been a rough year for everyone.

(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after recently returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)


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