THE FATTEST INDIANS I EVER KNEW
A true story about grand slams, exploding mountains, boreal redemption and sugary breakfast cereals.
Once upon a time I met the fattest Indians I ever knew. They were very nice people, and they each ate three meals in a row. They told me about how their children were forced to speak Spanish among other indignities suffered at the hands of the heartless white man.
I am a white man, but I wasn't offended by their vitriol. I said, "Can you please pass the vinegar?"
The Indians laughed like crazy when I put vinegar on my chips. They laughed even harder when I called them "chips." I smiled and nodded, unstung but left to wonder about a culture where minor socio-linguistic differences are objects of ridicule rather than curiosity. It gave an oddly French flair to these friendly, obese aboriginals as they set into heaping plates of apple pie.
This was America in the year 1999: bottomless, greasy and innocent, with her tricolour skirt billowing up in the wind of the sweet subway of freedom. And I was there, eating chips, listening to the fattest Indians I ever knew.
My sister ordered another Cherry Coke, and I smoked a Camel cigarette. Though neither of us knew it, before the day was done we would end up with a free box of sugary breakfast cereal.
In Soviet Russia, Navy Joins You
"I want some Cookie Crisp," my sister says, her voice echoey and close in the confines of the derelict Soviet submarine.
"What the fuck is Cookie Crisp?"
The submarine is dank, and lit with yellow light. It feels like a cave. We are backtracking single-file through the sleeping cabin we've already heard about from the tour guide. The beds are few: one man gets up to start his shift, another man climbs into the same bed to start his rest. This we are told by the guide, who has chosen to make our tour more immersive by doing a continuous and wretched impression of Yakov Smirnov. If there is a fate more uncomfortable than life aboard a claustrophic Soviet submarine, I can now fathom it: life with an inferior Yakov knock-off.
My sister is explaining Cookie Crisp: "It's this, like cereal, and it's shaped like little chocolate chip cookies, and you can like only get it in the States."
"In the States, eh?" I echo thoughtfully...
Uncle Funny is marrying Auntie Sequel, and we've all flown out to the Left Coast for the occasion. My family and I are staying at a historic boarding house in Vancouver, British Columbia. The days leading up to the ceremony are rainy, dreary and dull. The highlight of our activities is being victimised by the guileless aping of a second-rate comedian by a third-rate tour guide in the bowels of a scrap submarine moored to Canada's coast.
"Mum," I say, bending her attention from giggling at the tour guide. "Little Sister and I have had enough of this stuff. I think we're going to take a day-trip."
My mother is distressed that we will miss High Tea with them in Victoria, but my step-father hands me the keys to the rental car. "A day-trip to where?"
"These cheeseburgers are going to America."
World's Longest (Queue At The) Undefended Border
Passing into the United States of America was easy as pie back then. We didn't even bring our passports. We just hopped in the rented silver geriatric-sized semi-lux sedan with burgundy interior and followed the roadsigns. Because I'm a bit muddle brained, we have to turn around a couple of times, but it isn't long at all before we are parked in a long scab of cars that has congealed at the foot of a charming neoclassical archway.
As we inch toward customs I lecture my sister pompously about being polite to the customs officials. Not being much of a brush or comb man, I pat down my hair as best I can. My sister has multiple pieces of metal pierced through her face, so her options for upping the appearence of respectability are fewer.
I am worried that the border guards may think I'm kidnapping this teenage girl, but they don't seem very interested in us. "Drive safe," says the crew-cut boy as he waves us along.
The first thing we notice about the State of Washington is the inordinate number of apparently abandoned cars by the sides of the freeway. Many of them have numerals spray-painted across the often shattered windshields. "Very Mad Max," comments my sister.
I admire the way drivers of Washington understand and respect the passing lane. "It's like driving in a safety simulation," I say. Drivers in British Columbia are similarly slow compared to our home province of Ontario, but without the same lane-changing savvy of these orderly Nor'Western Yanks. The freeways are well-signed, and finding our way down the interstate to Seattle is easy.
"Cookie Crisp in Grungeville," says my sister. "I, like, can't wait."
"I never promised you a rose garden."
"Anything is better than more, like rainy tours with Mum and Step."
A Frasier Episode Come to Life
Seattle is probably the most un-European city ever built. It plays out more like a manicured theme-park than any real megalopolis I've ever known. It is surrounded by endless hummocks of copy-paste suburbia stitched at the seams by explosions of big box retail. Nestled within this nest is a strangely vacant downtown core, a neat plaidwork of Canadian-clean sidewalks framing blocks of commercial and cultural enterprises wholly disconnected from where a majority of the citizens live or work.
So, parking isn't a problem.
We take lunch at a small pub overlooking some kind of historic downtown market, the front of which is given over in roughly equal shares to fishmongering and drug-dealing. "Red Snapper!" calls one seller. "Wannarock?" whispers another.
"Hey, people here are colour-coded for our convenience," I note. "Everyone black is poor."
"Like, that's true," says my sister, squinting out the window. "Weird."
My sister has never seen this sort of handy labelling before, but I have lived briefly in the infamous North End of Halifax. This is the part of the city was was blown up early in the last century, and where the Haligonian crackers of yesteryear decided to put all of the black people who weren't satisfied to waste away in Africville, up the coast, an old outlet of the much ballyhooed Underground Railroad (a secret network used by many blacks fleeing slavery in America in favour of mere harassment and discrimination in Canada). In Halifax, having black skin was not only a statement of accounts, but also telegraphed your telephone exchange.
After lunch we mix in the market, smoking cigarettes to chase off the fish smell. Nobody tries to sell drugs to us, because we are white. My sister buys a poster featuring a band I've never heard of, but can find no Cookie Crisp. We eventually wander out of the labrynth of stalls. "We need a supermarket," I suggest.
But there is none to be found. As we wander the core, it comes clear that few if any people actually live in downtown Seattle; instead, it seems that a squadron of yuppies comes to work in the handful of skyscrapers, and then goes home to the outskirts at night, to find their Cookie Crisp in suburban supermarkets the size of stadiums.
"It looks like we're going to have to trawl the burbs," I tell my sister as we eat ice cream cones at the waterfront. She wants to see some of Seattle's sites before we leave. "Where to first?" I ask.
Steps away from the bin where we toss the remains of our ice cream cones, the local domed IMAX concern has round the clock showings of a short film about the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, so we plunk down some tender and find seats in the vacant theatre. The photography is gorgeous. We are surrounded by roiling clouds of pyroclastic ash, rivers of churning rock. IMAX speaks to us with all the persuasive power of awe and nausea.
Afterward, we walk to the fairgrounds and ascend the famous Space Needle tower. In comparison to the panorama presented by our own CN Tower back home, the humble vista from the upper deck of this needle is pretty hum-drum.
A bored guide asks us where we're from after he bums a smoke. "Um, Toronto," says my sister.
Somewhat abashed, the guide guesses that we're not too impressed with the view from Seattle's much shorter landmark. "Not at all," I assure him. "Actually, the Space Needle is much taller than the CN Tower. People frequently get the true height confused, on account of the Metric System."
"Ah, I see," says the guide, nodding knowingly and dragging on one of my sister's menthols. "Quite a view, isn't it?"
"It sure is," I tell him. It isn't, though. I've seen apartment buildings with more spectacular views, but who am I to rain on this boy's civic pride? "Listen: you don't happen to know where we can find a grocery store, do you?"
"Nowhere around here," he says. "You have to get out of downtown." He is obliging enough to sketch some simple directions on the inside lid of my smokes pack. "You'll pass this corner, where there's this bar -- that's where Nirvana used to play," he tells me, circling the spot on the sketch.
"Cool," says my sister.
These Aren't the Droids You're Looking For
Seattle's skyline sinks in the rearview mirror. My sister and I are seeing who can spot the most American flags on their side of the car, and we have just agreed that megasize flags count as two. The sun is beginning to set when we come upon what our drawn map tells us is our destination.
Behind a small fleet of abandoned cars is a condemned retail space with boarded up windows covered in skater tags. "Like, what the fuck?" asks my sister. "I thought this was supposed to be, like, America, where you can buy anything or whatever."
"Indeed," I agree. We drive on. It isn't long before I notice the flashing lights of the patrol car behind us. I swear, pulling over.
"Do you know how fast you were going back there?" asks the young officer as he saunters over to my drizzle-covered window.
"Oh, yes --" I begin, turning to look at the dashboard gauges. "Actually, no." I point to the numbers on the spedometer. "It's only in kilometres."
"Oh, you're down here from Canada?"
"Yes, just for the day. I've been trying to guess the limit translates from miles...I guess I didn't guess too well."
"You guessed a bit fast," he tells me seriously.
"Well, there's no use arguing with radar," I say. I always say this to police when they stop me for speeding. In general, it seems to please them if not delivered with too much cheek. "Though it's lasers you use now, isn't it?"
Following a short chat about lasers he lets us off with a friendly warning to guess our speed more conservatively in the future. After horror stories I have heard about fascist state police, I feel lucky to be let off so easily. "Can you direct us to a grocery store?" I ask the officer.
"Sure thing," he says. His directions are crisp and concise. We thank him. He makes a U-turn, and we speed away.
Cornucopaeia of Disappointment
I have never seen so many different kinds of peanut butter in my life. I stand in awe, a terribly small being at the foot of a great wall of food products, my innocence in tatters. "Jesus Murphy Brown!"
Beyond the dizzying array of peanut butter selections is a veritable cornucopaeia of bland mustards and flavoured mayonnaise, squeezable plastic bottles piled up to the rafters wrapped in all manner of garish colour. One thousand kinds of hair gel, scores of varieties of margerine and margerine-substitutes, dozens upon dozens of self-same competing brands of canned spray-cheese. The American market -- massive, fierce, roiling, unholy!
"This isn't a supermarket," I say to my sister; "it's a warehouse-sized anti-Communist manifesto."
In a respectable grocery store back home I might expect a selection of six to twelve different kinds of cereal from two or three manufacturers. This is why I am humbled and frightened by the entire aisle given over to cereals in this American store, floor to ceiling monoliths of grinning cartoon characters and striving athletes leering down at us. There are hundreds of choices. "Uh...do you see the one you want?" I ask my sister.
She shakes her head numbly. "Do you think there's, like, a card catalogue or something?"
A quarter hour later we are no closer to my sister's prize. This store stocks every food product known to our proud race, with the one glaring exception of Cookie Crisp cereal. The store attendants -- stand-ins for Beavis and Butt-Head -- are unhelpful to say the least, and in fact seem troubled by our expectation that they make themselves understood in English. "H'huh -- whud?" they ask.
Defeated and disheartened, we resignedly make our way back to the car.
Sages of Denny's
The sun has set. In a dark mood, I hum John Williams' Imperial March in anticipation of the upcoming first prequel to the Star Wars franchise (with a month to go until opening day, I as yet have no idea how badly The Phantom Menace will ultimately suck). Our mission to secure Cookie Crisp from America seems now forever lost, so we are heading back to British Columbia.
"I'm, like, pretty hungry," says my sister.
We spot a freeway-side Denny's restaurant, and decide to take our last bite of Americana. I lock the car and we wearily push inside. The place is fairly crowded, and smells like burnt coffee, chicken soup and feet.
We find a table near a corner booth, where two massive aboriginals are polishing off their Grand Slam meals. "Let's sit here, and like, score the booth when they leave," whispers my sister, and I nod. We flash the portly couple a smile, and sit down.
But they're not going anywhere. They put their feet up on chairs and bust out the tobacco. They pat down their pockets and frown, unlit cigarettes dangling from their lips. "Aw, shit," says the man in a rumbling baritone.
"Do you, like, need fire?" offers my sister brightly, Bic proffered.
The huge Indians are much obliged. "Can we smoke in here?" I ask, surprised. They explain that they are "more than regulars" and so the rules are bent on their account. "Go on, have a smoke!" smiles the woman, holding out her pack of Marlies. "My name's Chubby Feather, and this is my husband, Crippled Dog."
"Pleasure to meet you. I'm CheeseburgerBrown, and this is my sister Xena."
Crippled Dog looks like a working class Buddha. His salt and pepper hair is cropped short, his jaw lost to the folds of his neck. He wears a stained jogging suit, a mockery of sport. Chubby Feather's long hair has been tied into dozens of thin, decorated braids. She fills out her mumu to nearly a sphere.
When the waitress comes she turns instantly to the couple, but they magnaminously insist we get her attention first. My sister and I order our meals, and then the Indians order another round for themselves. "Two more Grand Slams," commands Crippled Dog.
We join the two obese Nisqually aboriginals at their booth while we wait for our food, chatting trivia for a while. Crippled Dog is trying to install Linux at home, so we talk geek as Chubby Feather asks my sister about her piercings. My sister, in turn, is quite taken with the extensive tattooing over the extensive Chubby Feather. "Some stuff I can't show no one in a restaurant," the Indian confesses, blushing.
Flunking the Spanish Inquisition
Over food, conversation turns to heavier matters. "What do you know-or-think-you-know about Indians in America?" challenges Crippled Dog as he works over his home fries without mercy.
I try to focus on his brown eyes, instead of his chomping maw. "There are Indians in America?" I take a bite of my sandwich. "TV would have me believe the cowboys and pilgrims killed off all you folk off with cootie-blankets and fire-sticks."
Crippled Dog laughs. "Exactly! But we're still here, but we have no voice."
Chubby Feather tries to agree to this, but her mouth is too full. So she just nods vigorously.
"We're not a big enough market to matter, not like Latinos or whatnot," continues Crippled Dog. "In Canada, they give natives a voice just because they deserve one, not because there's money in it. Natives on TV, natives on the radio, native events in the community..."
"It's not all, like, sunshine being aboriginal in Canada," interrupts my sister, giving a quick gloss over some recently unpleasant confrontations between native protestors and Mounties. I mention reports I've heard about reservations where people live in conditions of terrible poverty and hopelessness, huffing solvents and beating one another to pass the time.
"That's nothing," says Crippled Dog, shaking his head. "With all due respect, I'm sure we know more about the native situation in Canada than you do. And I'm telling you now, as bad as you think it is, things here are worse."
We pause. The waitress comes again. I expect the Indians to ask for the bill, but instead they order two more meals. Chubby Feather orders an extra side of bacon. "Good idea," says Crippled Dog. "Hey, do you guys call our bacon American bacon at home?"
"No, we just call it bacon. If anyone wants to get specific they say side bacon."
"Side bacon?" Crippled Dog and Chubby Feather look at one another and laugh uproariously. "That's crazy," they tell us.
They explain to us how their children are not taught Nisqually in the classroom, because the state government's mandate to provide minority language education in public schools doesn't specify how the language of instruction is to be determined, and thus the most cost effective solution has been to teach the Nisqually kids to speak Spanish.
"That wouldn't happen in Canada," Crippled Dog assures me.
"You're right," I admit. "They'd learn French."
"But our boys don't like Spanish, so they fail," Chubby Feather says somberly, using a last scrap of toast to polish her plate.
"That is like so unfair," says my sister.
Our Parting Gift To You
"That's why we're moving," says Crippled Dog. "Moving to Canada."
"Everything will be better when we move to Canada," says Chubby Feather, lighting up a Marlie. "You should e-mail us, and be our Canadian friends. We love the e-mail."
It turns out that eBay is the couple's principle source of income outside of government assistance and Crippled Dog's workmans' compensation payout for his sore back. They are e-mail hounds, and I do expect to hear from them. I give out my address anyway.
Soon I am paying our bill, and the Indians are ordering ice cream for desert. We leave them a pack of Canadian cigarettes. They are touched by this offering of tobacco, and ask how they can return the kindness.
"Well," says my sister shily; "have you ever heard of Cookie Crisp cereal?"
And, miracle beyond miracles, this is what Chubby Feather replies: "I love Cookie Crisp! I bet we got a box in the car right now, from shopping in town. Dog honey, run out to the car and fetch the cereal for these kids, okay?"
"I'm too stuffed to move," says Crippled Dog. He tosses me the keys. "It's the blue pick-up. Groceries are in the back seat. Help yourself to the Cookie Crisps."
"And take this," says Cubby Feather, pressing into my hand a folded serviette of bacon. "You know, for the road."
I'm moved. "You guys are some big-assed sweethearts," I say.
In return, we do not steal their truck.
My sister eats dry Cookie Crisp cereal and watches the sliding lights out the window as we wind our way back under the Peace Arch. On the radio is Cher's digitally extended warble, making us giggle. Outside it rains and rains. "Goodbye, America," she says huskily, falling asleep.
"Man alive," I can't help saying to myself as I drive; "those were the fattest Indians I ever knew."