Sister Feather Boa & Oil Can Gary

Sister Feather Boa went by Sister, but I’m attaching the Feather Boa to her name because I don’t think I ever saw her not wearing one. She lived in the low-income family housing units where I ran a satellite Boys & Girls Club, and I used to see her on my way to work, or when I was leaving for the day. There was a sidewalk that looped around the buildings and Sister often walked around and around, muttering to herself, or laughing, some technicolored feather boa or other trailing down her back or over her shoulder. She was a wafer-thin black woman, and she wore one of two wigs—platinum blonde or raven black. She looked, pretty much, the way someone playing a drug addict on TV looks.

The kids I worked with didn’t ever seem to pay her much mind, until one day when I was loading the van to take the baseball team to the park. Sister walked by, a red boa wrapped around her neck, a hot pink skirt and tiny scuffed high heels, the heels of her feet riding over the backs of the shoes, the platinum wig. (It was summer by then, but I’d seen her wear similar outfits all winter long, and her skin in the cold was ashy and pocked with gooseflesh, but I never saw her shiver). One of the boys saw sister walking by the van and made some comment I couldn’t hear. Three boys, though, brothers, heard the other boy’s comment and immediately defended Sister. “She used to be beautiful,” one of the brothers said. “And smart,” added a different brother. “But when she was a girl,” explained the third brother, “she got sick, and the doctor gave her some pill that made her even more sick. Like she was 'lergic. And she never got better.”

The boys had obviously heard this story from a parent or grandparent, and it reminded me of the story my father told me about Oil Can Gary.

My father knew Oil Can Gary because he went to high school with him and was friends with him. I knew Oil Can Gary because I worked third-shift at a gas station when I was an undergrad, and Oil Can Gary came by most nights to pick through the trash, looking for discarded bottles of motor oil. He kept a three-gallon gas container in the back of his truck, along with his own funnel, and he would pour the dregs of the discarded bottles into his own container, one by one, using his wide-mouthed funnel. It was kind of an odd thing to do, I thought, but I didn’t think too much of it. He would come inside when he was through, and get a cup of coffee, and we’d chat a little bit.

My father stopped in the gas station one night while Gary was performing his little ritual. My father stood at the counter and shook his head from side to side, watching Gary drain container after container. The guy was meticulous, and he worked his funnel a little like a scientist—getting eye-level with the thing, making sure his apparatus was properly constructed. “He had been smart,” my father told me, “and good-looking." Everybody liked him, even if he was a little odd sometimes. This was in 1973. Oil Can Gary went off to college like many of his intelligent classmates, but Oil Can Gary came back from college changed, a “druggie.” The drugs, my father said, had ruined his mind, and left what we had out in the parking lot—a guy who went around to all the gas stations at night collecting motor oil.

My father was essentially giving me a “Don’t do drugs” lecture using Gary as his example of how and why drugs are bad for you. It wasn’t the last time I heard about the guy.

A few years later, when I heard the boys talking about Sister, I thought of old Gary. I can’t say for certain that Sister was or had been on drugs, but she seemed to me like someone who could have been used as an example in a similar “Don’t do drugs” campaign. Instead, though, the boys’ parents had told them that a doctor was responsible for the woman’s illness. It was a legal medication that a doctor prescribed that made her the way she is.

I’m not a sociologist or anything, but I think there’s something significant about these explanations. I’ll let you guys draw your own conclusions though. And, of course, you’re welcome to share them if you feel like it.


Writing Blind said...

You always tell the most interesting stories. Makes me wish I'd grown up in a small town. I really do like your glasses by the way. I hope I didn't offend you the other day.

Chad Simpson said...

Thanks, Rebecca.

And I wasn't offended by your comment about my glasses. Well, maybe I did cry myself to sleep...Sometime soon: a photo of the new nerd glasses. I still can't decide if I like them.

fringes said...

Great stories, Chad. I've always liked true stories better than fiction. Strange for a fictionista, eh? But there is something about reading of the lives of people who actually exist. A connection that is sometimes missing from the made-up lives. Are you writing another one tomorrow?