Melvin has a speech impediment to go along with his barely interpretable Southern accent, and he always comes over in the tattered, clay-stained clothes of a blue-collar Southern man who’d rather you paid attention to his truck tires than his overall being. He’s somewhat short, his glasses were probably made by Hubble himself, and he’s got a less-toothy smile than most. The man can’t be more than 40, but when he speaks to me, it’s always, “Hah yew doin’, Miss Buh-leeyun?” (“How you doing, Mrs. Berlin?”)
And every single time I see him, I think, “Melvin is a frickin’ genius.” That’s because if there’s anything — anything — you need fixed around the house, he gets it done fast, done right, and done so that he never has to come back about the same issue. Folks, that’s a Neighborhood Newton.
One cool, early afternoon this spring, I said something like, “Melvin, you’re a really good guy to know.” He was on his side near the stove, chiseling some woodwork from around an old counter, and he did his usual boyish grin and added, “Thankee, Miss Buh-leeyun.”
I continued watching him tick away at the wood. “You’re pretty amazing — you know how to do everything, even if you’ve never done it before.”
He said something to the effect that things just kind of … work, and if you study them just a bit, you can see how they do. I told him that not everyone has that brain, so he should feel good about that. He made a face that seemed like he might not have heard that before.
It’s just that Melvin always looks down, and when he smiles, he’s sure to do so without showing his teeth. He’s insecure as all get-out, and I only recently found out his eye color — blue-grey — as he’s refused to look me square in the peepers for the longest time! Instead, he’ll pull his hat-brim down over his eyes when I compliment his handiwork while what’s exposed of his face turns red. He’s an incredibly talented handiman — no, that’s a sorry word for what he is. Let’s go with engineer, because he’s created some amazing things both beneath our house and deep into the walls of it — things he built from perfectly good scraps of wood, metal, and random gadgetry around our tool shed. And his work lasts; it’s solid. He’s gone behind professionals we used to pay damn good money for and went, “Why’s this done so bay-udd?!” (That last word being a two-syllable “bad.”)
Alas, he came in one day very recently when the plumbing to our century-old Colonial was acting up and I told him, as he was leaving, “Melvin? I really think you’re a genius. I mean that.”
And it happened. He actually stopped and faced me, the rubble of what parts he’d replaced still firmly in his hands. I won’t write it in his accent, but imagine a thick, slow drawl of a man whose speech impediment stems from being partially deaf — something I only recently learned.
“That means a lot to me,” he told me. And to paraphrase: “All my life, people called me stupid on account of how I talk and how I can’t read very well.”
And if he weren’t covered in … plumbing stuff and sweat, I might’ve just hugged him. Melvin may sound like what people would consider some “Trump-supporting, illiterate, idiot redneck!”, but to me, he just sounds like Melvin, the guy whose brain is far superior (and far more useful) than that of my own, grammar and the ability to read and write well be damned.
This brings me to my point.
I can’t say how many times people have told me (in so many ways), “I feel like my writing has to be PERFECT before I hit send when I text or email you, because I don’t want to look like an idiot in front of you.” The same goes for people who say, “I bet you can’t STAND when people mistake ‘your’ for ‘you’re!’ It’s the WORST, right?”
Honestly, no. I don’t care. I’ve seen some real butchery (if it can be called that) of this democracy we call language — and yes: it’s a democracy — so nothing really surprises me anymore. Additionally, some of the smartest people I’ve ever met couldn’t string a cohesive sentence together on paper, but could break down the damn-finest issues of today (and yesterday) while chattin’ it up on the front porch.
Equating spelling, grammar, structure, and the likes with intellect is so classist that it kills me. Not everyone’s had the upbringing these pedantic finger-wagging scoffers have had, neither may they possess the cognition to hold onto the “rules” of writing. Intellect takes many forms, so to sit there and judge someone because their English isn’t amazing is so elitist and arrogant, that THAT is what makes them look like an idiot. Well, in my eyes, at least.
So to all those out there who lord your “superior English skills” over those who can, let’s say, rewire your entire house while you struggle to get a birdhouse assembled, I say: Try rewiring your brain to recognize talent and wit in other ways. In the meantime, don’t drown in this all this rain … what with that upturned nose and all.
Three cheers to the Melvins of the world, and a giant “boo-hiss” to their bullies.
bErLin sYlVesTrE, tha editer