Home on the range in the land of philodendron

I am originally from East Central Illinois. Granted, I grew up in a university town, so we ain't talking Skoal Hollow, Mississip', or nothing, but Champaign-Urbana did indeed have its share of — shall we say — country charm. Basically, I grew up in a farm town.

Picture if you will two little boys standing side by side in a cornfield, wearing overalls and chewing hay. One kid is sort of leaning into the other one. Then add the caption, "Been farming long?" and you have an idea of what adorned the walls of many a diner on the main drag.

Comments like "Whew, it looks like rain" were always immediately followed by "Well, at least it will be good for the farmers." Traffic would be held up for a spell by combines hulking down the freeway. A summer job was always to be had "detasseling" corn (taking off the husk), which, coincidentally, led to the nearby Hoopeston, Ill., high school team calling themselves, in all seriousness, the Cornjerkers.

Yes friends, there was an innocence to the place. But truly, the one thing that brings me back to the bosom of my home more than anything else is the sight of a philodendron. The philodendron is the most common houseplant in the Midwest. It looks a bit like ivy, with large shiny leaves and long, trailing stems. Any housewife worth her mettle would drape the long tentacles of the plant across the tops of the living room walls for a Disney Jungle Cruise effect. Or you could wind them around your painted wood cutout of a goose with a ribbon around its neck and a basket in its beak. Philodendrons are nice enough, but they are just so damn normal.

I haven't seen a philodendron in more than 10 years, but imagine my surprise when I came across a whole army of them in the Inner Sunset last week. They flank the walls of Yancy's Saloon, itself a bit of a Midwestern throwback. The walls are wood, there's darts and Ms. Pac Man, and the clientele is, well, normal-looking. You know, young people who don't all look like roadies for Snow Patrol. Couples on their way home to watch Reba. And a guy named Campbell.

"Are you an author, too?" Campbell asked me with a smile as big as a grain silo. I had been talking to my friend about a story out front. I said yes, sort of, and we commenced to chat.

"I'm just about to have my first novel published!" he exclaimed, sounding a bit like Jon Lovitz. He was so excited that it was hard to resist his childlike charm. Campbell was slim, with Dockers pants and a sweater like Bill Cosby would wear. "It's about a guy who gets arrested. He thinks he is looking at the rest of his life in jail. They give him a bad lawyer. Eventually, he gets enough money to buy a good lawyer."

I was waiting to hear more, but then I realized that that was the whole story.

"Huh," I said with a smile, "sounds interesting." KFOG's 10 at 10 had just come on the sound system. It was 1985.

"Yeah," he effused, continuing on about his book. "I talked to cops, lawyers, everyone. I really tried to get into their heads."

From there our conversation branched out like a trailing philodendron. He said that he had been working hard on the novel for two years and that he was finally ready to self-publish. He was going to be putting up fliers in BART stations. The manuscript for the book was sprawled out on the bar, complete with his ink marks and Post-Its.

"I really try to get the reader to care about the guy at the beginning of the book. I really want them to sympathize with him," he said. Though a little voice inside told me I shouldn't, I decided to contradict him.

"Actually," I said, "I think it is more effective to leave the reader unsure of whether or not to like the guy, you know, the antihero thing. Then midway through it should dawn on the reader that they really care for the bastard." Campbell looked crestfallen, so I quickly added, "I'm not saying redo the whole book or anything." (In retrospect, though, yes, yes, I was saying that.)

"Oh," he laughed good-naturedly, his face now fully returned to an eager anticipation of literary fame. "I think that is a good idea. I am always looking for input." Then he sniffed pleasingly and added, "You know, on my novel." Campbell was one happy son of a gun.

"I'm just saying that moral shades of ambiguity are always a plus," I said. He agreed.

"Yeah. For me, I really like happy but deluded characters," he said. That reminded me of the old philosophical paradox that we all had to learn in school. Would you spend the rest of your life in a guaranteed state of bliss, only you have to live in a box as your body slowly turns to jelly? You are happy and content, mind you, but you cannot get out. Or would you rather step out of the box and face sadness and pain, yet be able to live a full life? Campbell seemed to be a nice mixture of both — happy in the thought of his book, delightfully unaware of the depressing, competitive, talent-based world of publishing that was soon to slap him in the face. Not to mention the litter fines he would face for posting fliers.

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