Woman With Book Walks Into a Bar,
aka Paradigm Shift

by SUSANNAH FELTS

So I go to Dino’s for a burger and fries and a beer and to read a book, which is one of my old favorite things to do—go to a bar by myself and read a little—but these days I don’t get to do this often, and finally I have an opportunity because everybody’s out of town, so there I am. I’m at the end of the bar and a guy comes and sits down next to me, he tells the bartender his 57th birthday is next week, and he starts telling me how he was once reading a thesaurus at a bar down in Antioch and he was reading the thesaurus because he likes learning what words are struggling to really say. He’s getting into etymology and breaking down the word “anxious,” something about fears, and I think, Hmmm, I like this idea of words struggling to say something and the thesaurus being a key to that...and at the same time I’m thinking oh, here we go.

And so I’m not an asshole, not all the time anyway, tonight I’m feeling pretty mellow, so I smile and say, Yes, words struggling to show what they mean, yes. And he continues and he continues and he comes up with the name Napoleon Hill, which rings a bell for me. There’s a quote of Hill’s about how if you’re doing what you love money will come to you—it was in this book I just read—and so I’m like, “Oh you know, I do know of Napoleon Hill, he was mentioned in this book I just read,” and I briefly explain how Hill and his writing were of great significance to one of the people written about in this nonfiction book, and the guy is like Oh yeah? And he says some more stuff and then he says that one of the reasons he likes to tell people stuff is that “It puts it back in my head.” And I’m like, Yes, I know what you mean, that makes sense!

And honestly, I’m laughing, I’m nodding, it’s all good. Then he draws a little napkin diagram of how synapses get turned from dirt paths into superhighways in the brain by process of repetition and I nod, nod, Mmhmm. And then he’s onto Steven Covey, do you know Stephen Covey (yes yes, I’ve heard of that guy and his 7 habits etc.), and he’s telling this story about Covey on a train with a woman and her annoying kids, and the point of this story is that it was a PARADIGM SHIFT for Covey, because when he told this woman she should control her unruly kids, she said, Oh sorry, we just got back from the hospital where their father died, sorry. This was a PARADIGM SHIFT. I’m like, yes, paradigm shift, thinking back to when I was a teenager and my dad first described paradigm shifts to me. And then he mentions Napoleon Hill and that quote again, so I write down the name of the book I mentioned on his cocktail napkin—The Unwinding, by George Packer. You should read it, I tell him, It’s really great, if depressing!—and he’s like Yeah ok!, ...and then he talks some more about paradigm shifts and I’m smiling about all this because it’s interesting enough for bar-talk, and I’m old enough that this shit just doesn’t bother me anymore, or not as much, and also I’m a little buzzed, and I have this idea I just can’t resist, because I’m thinking of paradigm shifts, so I’m like, “Do you know the term mansplaining?”

And he’s like, no! What’s that? And the bartender gal, too, who happens to be standing there right then, says, “What’s that? Sounds interesting!” (Which surprises me, that she doesn’t know this term). I write it on a new napkin for him, and he says he’ll look into it later, and then there’s more talking on his part, and at this point I do kind of want to explain what mansplaining is but or because I genuinely like this dude, whose name is Carlos, well really Caryl. He’s Portuguese Indian, 57, from Goa, and while he’s talking I’m thinking about how I could have just been like, Don’t Talk To Me Bro, but I’m glad I didn’t do the Ice-Cold thing because I’m fairly interested in this guy’s story even though he’s definitely talking at at at me. He runs the body shop up Gallatin beside Enterprise Rental, they work on classic old cars, lots of 70s Impalas. He loves these old cars. He used to own a landscaping business which he named Nature Valley after walking through Kroger and seeing a bottle of salad dressing called Nature Valley and he was like, “That’s what I’m going to call it,” and he used to own a cleaning business too, operating in four states, and he had like four businesses at one time at one point, and he liked them all—but this—the car stuff—this is on his bucket list.

And he loves his pit bulls who guard the place—he shows me pictures of them on his phone. He gets there every morning and cleans up their poop and cooks them a special breakfast. He shows me a picture of one chewing on a giant bra that had been left in one of the cars they worked on, and Yes, he says, there’s all kinds of shit left in these cars, yes! Like nice jewelry, mostly. (But also giant bras!) He grew up in about four different countries including Yemen and Portugal, and his dad was a diplomat, so he tells me about that, and how his dad met his mom when he was 51 and she was 15 (insert wide-eyed emoji here) and his dad suffered a mental breakdown at one point, etc., but anyway, he sent his sons to America, something about his oldest son in the armed forces, and he had his daughters marry...some legit guys. Anyway, that’s how he got here, with his older brother. And he has lots of napkins filled with writing, he tells me. He wakes up to them.

And then we get back to the mansplaining napkin, and he admits it’s “kind of scaring him.” And I laugh and I try to explain mansplaining without upsetting him. I tell him about Rebecca Solnit and tell him he should look her up too, she’s a great writer. And he seems a little confused and troubled by the mansplaining concept and says, But haven’t we been having a nice back-and-forth conversation? I say yes, sure, because at this point I have gotten a few words in.

And then he tells me how he really prefers talking to women, it’s like peeling an onion, he can get at what he really feels. Like, at work he maybe has a few beers with the guys there and that’s it, they don’t really talk. And that leads into something about how Sure, I’m an attractive woman and all (which is funny to me because seriously I am straight off an afternoon run and my face is still literally gritty from wind and dirt and sweat and I’m wearing no makeup and, you know, I ain’t 15, and still), and something about that being part of the conversation appeal?—honestly this part I’m blurry on, it was just so weird but also not weird at all, how that’s where he went with this.

And so some more talking from him and he’s like, I don’t even know your name, so I tell him my name, and he says he’s going to look up that book and the mansplaining and the Solnit for real, and I say yeah, I’m gonna go now, and as I’m gathering up my book and bag and phone he tells me he likes my nails. Which makes me laugh. Because for real, if there’s a part of me that needs serious help right now it’s my nails, it’s this almost two-week old gold mani that’s all chippy and needs to come off. It’s literally on my to-do list tonight to remove nail polish, so I make noise to this effect, and he’s like, no, what he likes is that my nails are not long, and I’m like, Yeah, but they’re even too long for me right now! I need to clip them—and he’s like, Oh, yeah, well let me tell you, I am a connoisseur of nails—fingers and toes, oh yeah...and we both laugh and—yeah, good-bye, nice talking to you.

SUSANNAH FELTS’ work has appeared in the Oxford American, Literary Hub, Longreads, The Sun, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and other publications. She’s the author of a novel, This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record (Featherproof Books) , and the cofounder and co-director of The Porch, a literary center in Nashville, Tennessee.