Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Ugly Convention

The highway passed beneath the car no faster than it ever had, and I grew impatient. Tim, half asleep, sat beside me. He was supposed to be helping, but I knew I'd be doing most of the work.

"We're almost there," I said, hoping to wake him up a little and maybe inspire him to get his camera ready.

"Mmph," he said. Tim always said "mmph". It must have meant something on the planet he came from, I chuckled silently to myself.

Two merry guards talked briskly at the gate and asked to see my pass. One frowned at the other and said something in his ear.

"Mr. Gruffy said I had permission to do a story on this place," I explained, hoping they would remember and not bar me from entering.

"Gruffy, the owner of the Daily Satellite," Tim put in. They looked him over carefully and nodded to one another in approval. The gates swung wide, and I drove on through.

"Wonder why they were questioning me. Thought we had this all set up."

"Easy," croaked Tim. "You're not ugly enough."

I had decided not to wear makeup, and instead of fixing my hair I had just tied it in a lazy ponytail. I had dressed in my oldest clothes for the occasion, but I guessed that it hadn't done enough good.

Tents and campers lined up for many aisles. Everyone was out milling around, talking and laughing, playing games, eating refreshments, and watching me park with critical eyes. I strode right up to one man who seemed particularly good at lawn bowling and opened my notebook.

"What's is it you like best about this convention?" I asked. "I'm Laney Brown from the Daily Satellite," I added with a smile.

The man frowned a bit. "I liked it just fine until you showed up," he said. I turned and walked away to find another person to interview. A senior citizen was walking her dog, so I pulled a treat biscuit from the pocket of my coat (an old trick I had learned for getting dog owners to talk), and introduced myself. Tim followed, camera in hand, typical lazy attitude afoot.

"Hello, I'm Laney Brown..." I began.

The woman picked up her dog, went into her camper, and slammed the door shut.

I went for a walk and looked around. Everyone here was definitely in the lowest 2% of the population as regarded external looks, but none of them seemed to care too much about it. They were a community of ugliness, but at the same time many of them seemed to be hard working, clean, friendly, and intelligent. Farmers with holes in their gloves waved at Tim as we went by. Broad shouldered, sensible women were chatting about sewing and cooking. Dog owners were petting their dogs and comparing notes on breeding and nutrition. Everyone had something to do, and no one saw his or her life as useless. I put all this in my notebook as I walked. Then I thought of something.

"Tim, these people seem to like you better than me. It must be your friendly appearance."

"You're not fooling me, Laney. I know why they like me better," he said with a pout.

"No one's going to talk to me," I insisted, "so maybe you can get them to talk. Especially if I take the camera and hide behind it so they can't see my face. See?" I held up the camera as a mask and smiled.

"Yeah," said Tim, swallowing the last of his coffee and stowing the cup in his shoulder bag. "Okay, what do you want me to ask them?"

"Here's the list of questions Mr. Gruffy gave me." I handed over my list and notebook.

We got several fine interviews that day, and I witnessed a depth of humanity that I personally will not forget. It seemed that when society had thrown them out, they took each other in. When no one met their need for comfort and friendship, they were there for each other instead. The rejects in turn rejected those who rejected them. The doors that got slammed in my face made me wonder how many had been slammed in theirs. Inner beauty and wisdom were prized by those who couldn't win the game of good looks. I envied them, although I knew that I didn't particularly want to change places. They had something automatically given to them that the rest of us had to work harder for: that something escaped my attempts to name it, so I just wrote it up as a "unique and mysterious quality."

My article won an award. I named Tim as co-author for the first time ever. Lazy or not, I couldn't have gotten it done without him.

"Where are we going now?" said Tim as we climbed into my car.

"To cover a beauty pageant," I replied.

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