Helen Chappell - February 2009

Uncivil Disobedience in Oysterback
Helen Chappell

   I am glad that elections are finally over. Maybe now some of us can get back to actually speaking to each other around here. And I, Desiree Grinch, proprietor of the Blue Crab Tavern (***, Guide Michelin) here in Oysterback, can get back to business and stop thinking about every unguarded word that some of our more touchy residents may construe as an insult to their particular political beliefs. Especially in this economy, which, as you may know, is not great.
    When you are in business, it’s a good idea to keep your thoughts on politics and religion to yourself, as I learned at my grandmother’s knee. If you want to keep your customers coming in, you have to realize the most offhand remark might be perceived as smelling of the burned rubber of Error.
    And besides, I have enough trouble keeping everyone else from killing each other with their differences of opinion. Especially when they choose to express these opinions with steak knives and oyster forks, which is not a civilized dining experience of the kind I want in my establishment.
    Tossing out drunken patrons with loony political opinions they have gathered from AM radio and the Internet is hard on my back and my knees, but I will not hesitate to use my black belt skills, which I learned at Bennington, to maintain the peace of my establishment. If they want to act like knuckle-dragging fools, they can take their business over to the Boone Bros. We Fix Garage & Road Kill Cooked Here Café, where if they misbehave, they’ll be lucky if Mike and Gabe Boone drop them off somewhere in the marsh, instead of making them part of the menu.
    People not from around here often ask me about local politics, which are hard to explain to outsiders. In fact, most people who have lived here all their lives find them hard to explain. As I am on the village council, I can tell you it’s a tough job being an elected official in a place where everyone knows your business before you do, and gossip is second only to Bingo Nite at the Fire Hall as local entertainment.
    Let’s start with our state senator, Orville Orvall, who we have returned to office from the West Hundred several times, in spite of his total inability to accomplish anything in terms of repairing infrastructure or getting much-needed pork projects for our district. It’s a well-known rumor that they don’t give him female interns anymore, and many nights, he’s closed out the bar at the Annapolis Marriot.
    But you can count on Orville to show up at every JayCees chicken barbecue and every fire department’s ham and oyster dinner. His presence reminds most of us why we like to keep him as far away from decent people as we can, and Annapolis is about as far away as we can send him, unless some lobbyists want to give him comps to a Ravens game or the Cayman Islands or something.
    I thought he might lose that one year after that incident at the Mosquito Festival that made the national news, but he got just enough votes to head across the Bridge again. I only mention Orville because he’s a native of Oysterback, even if some people say the Orvalls are where the gene pool meets the ce-ment pond.
    Then we have the village government of Oysterback, which is also elected. Our nominal mayor is Rick Bladderwack. I say nominal because poor Rick has been in a coma for fourteen years, since he was putting up his Christmas lights and hit his head pretty badly when he fell off a ladder into a soffit.
    We keep returning Rick to office because everyone likes him, and he is Pink Bladderwack’s youngest boy, and everyone likes Pink, who came over here as a German POW to pick fruit and liked it so much he came back and married a local girl after the war was over, and, well, if a man likes Oysterback that much to come back, then we like him, too. Besides, Pink married one of the Boaz girls, the one who was Miss Poultry Princess in 1951, and that counts for a lot.
    We treasure our beauty royalty around here. Their great-granddaughter Tiffani Hackett was the one who won the Miss Eastern Shore Fire Department talent competition with her tap rendition of “Teenage Girls in the Old Testament,” which she learned at Devvie’s Christian School of Tap and Ballet.
    Some people say the contest was fixed because Tiffani’s grandmother on the other side, Mrs. Carlotta Hackett, has a Cadillac convertible, and you need a convertible if you’re going to ride in a parade, and convertibles are hard to come by, but that’s just what people say. Tiffani’s the one who twirled her fire batons at her wedding at Oysterback Hardshell Methodist Church while she sang “We’ve Only Just Begun.” She’s got talent galore. Just ask the West Hundred High football team. Or so you hear.
    Anyway, Rick’s still in a coma, but we’re all afraid he’ll wake up one day and be really hurt that we went behind his back and elected a new mayor, so we vote for him, just in case. Like I say, Rick’s a nice guy and no one wants to hurt his feelings.
    So, Omar Hinton, who runs the local store, is president of the village council, and has been for years, and he kind of is acting mayor. He once suggested he was vice-mayor and winked, but his wife Thelma heard the word “vice” and, religious as she is, had a fit. So he became president of village council, and has to run the meetings, which is no small job. When you get out on the marsh and over the bridge, Robert’s Rules of Order don’t exist, and everyone talks over everyone else, and what should take half an hour to accomplish, like requesting that the county grit and gravel Oysterback Road, ends up taking about three hours, because people drift off the point so much.
    When the subject of Oysterback Road came up, fellow councilperson Ferrus T. Buckett, who is the world’s oldest (and maybe last) waterman, started talking about how back in the day, it was a corduroy road, which meant they lay down rows of pine tree trunks in the marsh and just shoveled oystershell over them until winter came and all the trees sank into the mud, and the tide rose up over the roads in the spring so deep that people ended up taking their boats to town to do their shopping and whatnot.
    Which prompted Doreen Redmond, who owns the Curl Up ‘N’ Dye Salon de Beaute, who is also young enough to be Ferrus’s granddaughter, talk about how when she was a kid, they’d spend a fortune on macadam on that road, and it would erode away and sink into the marsh, and how it was a waste of taxpayer money, that they ought to build a straight causeway, so it didn’t twist and turn so much, so you were doubling back on yourself half the time, with the price of gas what it is, and her with a business to run and three kids to haul back and forth to practice for this, that and the other thing, sports, music, lessons, whatever.
    When I first ran for election to village council, I wasn’t too sure about doing it for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I thought you needed to know a lot more than I do. Then I found out most people know even less than me, but at least I have the sense to research things.
    Also, I wasn’t sure I could do a good job. But I guess I’m doing okay. I had a draft of our letter to County Council finished on my laptop and a note to call the county council president the next day and give him a heads up before they took a vote and seconded the motion.
    What changed my mind was when Omar asked me to run, and told me they needed a good secretary to keep the minutes. I can do that. I just never thought anyone would ask me to do it, because I wasn’t born here. I’m a foreigner, from another town.
    But there was a good reason I got elected. I keep my opinions on politics and religion to myself.
    It seems as if the last village board before us had all been elected in the wake of a tent revival. Based on their strict religious beliefs, which many thought would restore morality and old-time values to Oysterback. Not that anyone was running around doing anything terribly immoral, at least not in public (this is a small town, remember). And if I do say so myself, Oysterback is mired somewhere in the ’50s, if you look at some of the giant, rock-hard bouffants and buzz cuts Doreen’s still doing.
    The trouble was, when the Godly new council got together for a session, they’d all start speaking in tongues and shouting. And then no one could read the minutes, because it was all in tongue language, so nothing got done.
    If you ask me, when it comes to town meetings, they still speak in tongues around here, but I just translate it into what needs to be accomplished in this world right here.