On one of my very first business trips I was sent to a former textile plant near Atlanta that had been converted to a manufacturer of conveyor belts and other rubber products.
It had been a long day of flying then catching a train into the suburbs, and I felt my visit to the hotel bar to spend some of my per diem was well deserved.
In retrospect, I should have known not to pick a stool so close to a pack of cigarettes and a half-finished drink. No one leaves a pack of cigarettes at a bar. The pack’s owner, when she came back from the bathroom, looked like the kind of person who hangs around a suburban Holiday Inn lounge on a weeknight. She and the bartender were on a first name basis.
We fell into conversation, which was difficult because: 1. it was Disco Night at the lounge and the music was quite loud; and 2. she had a thick Southern accent which may have been enhanced by alcohol. But we managed some small talk. She told me she was a retired school teacher. I thought sympathetically of her students.
When she asked what I did, I said I was a reporter for a publication that covers the rubber and plastics industry. She seem disappointed.
“So you write about scuuuuuum,” she said distastefully.
I wasn’t sure I heard right. I asked her to repeat it once, maybe twice. “Scuuuuuuuum. SCUUUUUUUUM”
I realized that she was in fact saying the word scum. I tried to imagine what the rubber manufacturers of America had ever done to make her take such a dim view of them. Finally the misunderstanding became clear. She wasn’t hearing me any better than I was hearing her.
“Not rubbish. RUBBER.”
We cleared that up but the conversation never quite recovered. At length, Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” came on.
“Isn’t this a great song?”
I shrugged noncommittally.
“Not really my kind of music.”
“Oh, come on. It’s fun. Listen to words. Celebrate. Have a good time.”
“I know. I grew up with this stuff. I didn’t like it then and it doesn’t do anything for me now.”
She returned to her drink.
Finally the song “Heart of Glass” came on. That’s a song I’ve always liked, and I thought I should let her know I wasn’t a complete churl. So I told her.
“Hey Shirley,” she yelled to the bartender. “This is his FAVORITE SONG.”