Wage Slavery 5: The Gone Cats

When last we left the WildeRix, he had given up on the rock and roll lifestyle. Let’s see what happens next…

When I quit the band, I moved back to my parents’ place for a while. I knew my dad would have work for me with his heating and air conditioning business. He always needed help. After I stopped working at the cattle ranch on my college breaks, I started working with Dad. Although initially, it didn’t entail much actual work. I would fetch his tools from the van, hold a flashlight for him. Basically, I served as his third arm.

Since I didn’t have a lot to do, I would often sit in the old church van that Dad had turned into his work van and read. I got on a Jack Kerouac kick for a while, and read On the Road and Dharma Bums and tried to get lost in the adventures I wanted to have.

I would also set stupid little goals for myself. Since we usually took our lunch break at whatever little diner sat closest to whatever job site we worked on that day, I ended up eating at pretty much every mom and pop joint over two counties. So I decided that I would always get a hamburger on a little quest to find the best hamburger in the central Ozarks. I found some pretty decent ones, but my quest got sidetracked when I found something even better.

My dad had a favorite place to eat. Anytime we had a job in or around Quitman – the town where I went to high school – we would always go to this one catfish house right next to the school campus. Some “old boy” ran the place that Dad had known for decades. He had opened and closed his establishment in half a dozen locations around Quitman before he finally found his current spot. As far as I know, he still runs his business out of the same place.

Dad loved this joint over all the others because of the crowd. A certain set of the same “old boys” always showed up every day to talk tractors and politics and shoot the shit. Some of them belonged to families that had lived in the area for generations immemorial. Others, like Dad, had moved into the area and had to struggle for a while before finding acceptance into the community. Dad had paid his dues back in the day, and now he enjoyed the fruit of his status in the community.

But as I read On the Road, Dean Moriarty showed me a whole new way to look at these old dudes. He kept talking to Sal about the “gone cats” in all the jazz joints they would go to. He would croon about the individual characteristics that made these cats so “gone”. I looked up from my book to see all these old boys sitting at the table talking politics with my dad, and I had the realization that I had come to sit in the midst of the gone cats of Quitman, Arkansas.

For the first time, I stopped seeing them as a bunch of old hicks and started seeing what made these hicks so cool. They lived such rich and characteristic lives – like characters in a story. I thought about my friend Jim’s photography and how he always found ways to capture the aspect of somebody’s image on film that made you see this person like a character in a story. You could sense the years of toiling in the sun that etched the lines onto their faces. You could feel the eons of stress that continually turned their hair more white. They had grit under their fingernails and stains on their jeans to attest to the labors they had endured that very morning before they came to this catfish joint to fill their bellies an smoke their cigarettes and sip their coffee and gab with the other cats before they went back to bailing hay or fixing flats or building houses or fixing air conditioners.

For the first time, I saw how my dad fit into the community and saw that he labored as much at this table as he did in somebody’s crawlspace. He had inserted himself into this community edgewise. They had not embraced him when he moved here from Denver, and they called him a “foreigner”. But after almost two decades of networking among the families that filled these hills, they had finally extended him a seat at the table in the catfish house.

I enjoyed the jazz these old cats made with their conversation. They talked of weather and politics and threw around jargon from their various fields of interest – sometimes involving literal fields. And I saw a glimpse into the depth of suffering that had salted their lives and their conversations. I knew my own father’s history of enslaving himself to pay rent and put food on the table for us, and I saw now how that pain bound these men together. They never spoke of it, as such, but it underlined everything – even the joys – they discussed. And I caught a glimpse of what lay in store for me. And while that glimpse felt romantic, it sure didn’t look pretty.

Next: Wage Slavery 6: Just say no (to salespeople)

4 responses to this post.

  1. Wage Slavery 4: Rockstar

    When last we left the WildeRix, he had contemplated eating some rats. Let’s see what happens next…

    Back during the year when I lived in Austin, TX, I would often make road trips back to my alma mater in Arkadelphia, AR, to see my …


  2. Posted by Heber White Boy on 10/03/2007 at 8:50 pm

    Wow. love it. i think the fish house is no more or it has moved ’cause the building is in ruin


  3. Posted by Rix on 10/04/2007 at 7:09 am

    Thanks, for the compliments and the update, Trevor. I feel kind of sad to hear that the place has run down. But I bet Harvey has set up shop somewhere else in the county. You can’t keep that man down for long.


  4. Posted by Aaron on 10/05/2007 at 1:21 am

    I’m really enjoying this series Rix. I had one of those ‘glimpse into the future’ things too (about 7 years ago) it severely altered the course of my life and led directly to me becoming a reader of your blog – amongst other things :-)


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