T. S. Eliot at Bojangles
Why I was zany enough to try to barter a poem for a chicken biscuit* escapes me at this moment. It seemed like a good idea at the time, perhaps because I was tired and out of sorts.
I had left home very early in the morning for a one-day trip to Milwaukee, and my flight didn’t get back until after dinner. It didn’t help when the scanner at the airport parking couldn’t scan my ticket and I had to pay extra. I was also hungry. The small bag of pretzels that passes for dinner on USAIR these days hadn’t eased my pangs. So on the way home I decided to stop at Bojangle’s for a bite.
The nice lady at the counter looked as weary as I felt, so perhaps I thought a little off-beat break in the routine might cheer both of us up.
“A chicken biscuit,” I said, “Cajun style.”
She rang up my order and said, “Two fifty-nine.”
It was then that something in me snapped and I said, with as straight a face as I could muster,
“I’m not sure I have that much on me. Would you accept a poem instead of cash?”
“No,” she shook her head, looking at me suspiciously. She had probably been panhandled too often and didn’t think I looked like a homeless person.
“It’s a good poem” I said hopefully.
Her expression didn’t change. But I could detect a slight hint of curiosity.
“Wouldn’t you like to hear it?”
“Well, what is it?” she said.
Now I was on the spot. I hadn’t really intended to recite a poem but she was calling my bluff. And since there were no other customers in line I couldn’t very well suggest she was probably too busy to listen.
Frantically I flipped through my mental files and dismissed some snippets of verse or poetry I knew by heart. What could possibly fit a fast-food line?
Then: inspiration! The closing lines of Eliot’s Four Quartets would certainly be appropriate for a tired, hungry traveler wanting only to get home. So I cleared my voice, stood straight, and intoned:
“We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Her expression was still doubtful, but at least she was listening. So I continued, with the bits about the unknown gate, and the hidden waterfall, and the children in the apple tree who were not heard because not looked for.
I glanced over at the assistant standing next to her. She certainly hadn’t looked for this performance! Her face registered total unbelief. But since I was this far into it I decided to soldier (or poet) on.
“Quick now, here, now always – “
I saw my serving lady trying to hold back a smile. I went on.
“A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)”
There! That should do it! How could she miss the simple honesty of this wayfaring stranger who had undoubtedly given away all he had and deserved her pity.
How I finished the final lines I don’t know. By this time she was cracking up and so was I! Somehow I stumbled through, quoting those memorable words of Julian of Norwich with which Eliot brought his masterpiece to an end.
“And all shall be well
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.”
All would be well! Surely the sound of those words if not the tongue of flame would impress her as closing time drew near.
I finished, and waited hopefully.
“Well, what do you think?”
There wasn’t even a second pause.
“Two fifty-nine” she said.
“But you do have a very nice voice.”
* Note: for those of you who are pure English speakers, a “chicken biscuit” is not a chicken on a cookie! The biscuit is a Southern US concoction, more like a scone than a cookie. And the chicken is fried, not baked or boiled. The whole thing is big enough to take two hands and an extra-large sized mouth to eat!