1997: In my now-and-then capacity as a telemarketer for the local newspaper, I have been addressed as Sir, Son, Ma’m, Dear, and Dude. The confusion produced by my telephone voice began when I was about ten years old, the result of an innocent quirk of nature that caused my mother so much embarrassment that she directed me to speak in a higher, more feminine voice, insisting that if I did so, the change would become permanent. Her idiotic suggestion did not win my compliance, and to this day the people I ring up on behalf of the local newspaper call me Sir, Son, Ma’am, or even Dude and I let them think whatever they wish.
As TV journalists like to say, “the vast majority” of copies of the weekly flyer named The Guide are delivered to residents in the two towns in our county. Of the 30,000 copies printed each week, 350 must be mailed to outlying households, a service for which the United States Postal Service charges the publishers $125.00 per week. The postal authorities have decided that we (that’s me) must obtain the names of 8,000 people who will admit that they wish to receive The Guide, otherwise the Postal Service will no longer permit copies to be mailed bulk rate.
About Our County: Not the entire state, just our county. Imagine an area the size of Massachusetts. Remove the vegetation, the history, the thriving cities and towns, the ethnic culture, the restaurants, the shopping, the seafood, the numerous institutions of research and higher learning, the cultural arts, professional sports teams, and all but 45,000 of its people. Add bitter alkaline soil, a uniformly high and lifeless plateau (average altitude 6,100′) and precipitation on a par with the Mongolian Steppe. True, a river does flow through the area like the Nile crosses Egypt, but without delivering a single bucket of fertile sediment. Too barren for cattle, Pronghorn, coyote, and rabbits form a tentative fauna. Hordes of sheep are trucked in during February because the vast public lands mean they can be rotated to a different grazing patch every two to three days.
Over the brief time that I’ve lived in Wyoming, contact with my neighbors has for the most part been via the phone calls I make on behalf of the newspaper’s ongoing survey. When someone answers the phone, I say, “This is The Guide calling to verify that you still wish to receive The Guide.”
The usual response is uh, or uh-huh, both of which mean yes, so I quickly confirm the address as it appears in the phone book. Good enough, but in an extraordinary number of instances, the phone number does not belong to the person listed in the phone book. This invalidates the response, and I must ask the person to reveal his or her correct address and identity. Shockingly, he or she invariably complies. The percentage of disconnected numbers is also high: area jobs depend on oil and gas production and coal and trona (baking soda) mining, industries that guarantee a transient population.
About half the respondents don’t recognize the free paper as The Guide, so I prompt them with, “The free Tuesday paper, the shopper’s guide, you know, the one that has the TV listings inside?” Everyone gets it then, although a few say, “Oh! That thing I find in my bushes every Tuesday.” Which is true.
An alarming number of residents fear that we intend to take it away from them or that we will start charging for it. One woman said, “Well, if it’s a bother, I guess you can stop bringing it.” Another meekly replied, “No, I don’t want it anymore – is that OK?”
A few say positive things such as, “We love that little paper.” “I sure do need that TV Guide,” and “Don’t leave me without the grocery store coupons.”
A teenager responded wryly, “My mother and her husband aren’t here. Call back.” Stereotypical husbands must “ask the wife.” “I’m not in a decision-making position in this house,” admitted one.
“My wife just got laid off and I’m kinda gettin’ that way too.” What this had to do with receiving a free paper, I’m not sure. I worry about folks who contrive to make me decide whether to say “yes” or “no” for them, and about a man who shouted, “Come over for a soft drink, a cup of coffee, and Ritz crackers.”
A high percentage of those who wish to stop delivery cite failing eyesight or blindness. “I always have the TV on, why do I need a TV guide?” an elderly gentleman asked.
Despair overcomes me whenever my call intrudes on what sounds like a tiny human black hole at the center of a room-sized galaxy, surviving on energy sucked from an excruciatingly loud television set, with the furnace set on Hell, in the company of a sole surviving houseplant that was packed into potting soil in 1952, its one withered leaf gasping for the CO2 that the old human can no longer supply in sufficient quantity. Enough poetry.
The phone book is crammed with names that are new to me: Likwartz, Labuda, Bodyfelt, Copyak, Bozovich, Blazovich, Chewning, Bilyeu, Crnich, Cukale, Delanneoy, Depoyster, Fagnant, Holopeter, Jauregui, Jelouchan, Lovercheck, Manhard, Warpness, and more. Between 1850 and 1950, this corner of Wyoming attracted an international ensemble of men looking for the worst work on earth, but alas, ethnic names are the only lasting evidence of a diverse cultural heritage, which is not surprising in an environment that defeats human effort, in which the vast and bleak land paralyzes the psyche.
A friend who grew up in a coal camp north of town contends that by the 1950’s, everyone had become the same. “Everybody just looked and sounded the same,” he said. “Bleak, beaten up, defeated.”
I continue to jot down amazing names: LaDonna LaCroix, Season Lower, Ty Harder, Larry Hell, Numa Grubb, Jack Leathers, Bert Mexican, Edwardo Wardo, Osmo Ranta, Clint Chick, Caddy Cackler, Fyrn Coon, Rhett Coy, Theron Dye, Deena & Alle Jo Butters, Kamber Bink Backman, Wanda Hodo, Hushlen Cochrun, Tex Jasperson, Cyma Cudney, Bubb Buh. And the surnames – Uncapher, Sweat, Warpness, Chitica, Laundra, Tonette.
Another melancholy evening as a telemarketer; one phone exchange took off on a sad energy of its own. I don’t recall what set the woman off, but she said that as a young bride she had agreed to follow her husband into the Colorado mountains for a three-month try at a mining job. The pair stayed to raise four kids before moving to Wyoming.
“Eighteen years in Colorado, eighteen here,” she said. A symmetrical life at least. Her husband still works as a miner and drives a “twelve-mile-long dirt road with 291 ditches” to work and back, which worries her. “I can’t believe that my life is all gone,” she sighed. “After eighteen years we still don’t know anyone in this town.” Me neither; my rubber dingy ran aground here a short two years ago and I’ve been busy falling in love with the landscape.
“We’re sorry, you have reached a marriage that has been disconnected or is no longer in service.” No longer connected are Duke + Sandra; Don + Darla; Eldon + LaRie; Cactus + Tammy; Amber + Travis; Hava + Holly; Jay + Dee Dee.
It could be 1957 outside the newspaper office, except that this was an exciting town back then. Editions of the newspaper from that time are characterized by enthusiasm and pride; by advertisements for roadhouses, dance halls, and social clubs that catered to every interest, age and hobby. There were restaurants and stores. A full plate of gossip and local news kept people connected. Flipping through the old papers makes me wish I had wandered here a half century ago.
Today’s main street is a dreary alignment of gas stations, concrete block motels, and auto body shops punctuated by weedy lots and businesses that stick to the Interstate interchange at either end of town like cultural antibodies guaranteed to fight off growth and prosperity.