One spring morning, I stopped at Stewart’s, the local convenience store, to get the New York papers and some coffee. I eavesdropped on the two guys in front of me as they poured enormous quantities of cream and sugar into their cardboard coffee cups.
Man in blue cap: “Hey.”
Man in red cap: “Hey.”
Blue Cap: “So, you still working over at—”
Red Cap: “Yup.”
Blue: “You get your—”
Red: “Yeah, all fixed.”
Blue: “I bet it was—”
Red: “More than two grand …”
Blue: “Ouch. So you lost—”
Red: ” ‘Bout a week. I’ll be done Friday.”
Grunt and Grumble is the language of rural life, the patois of builders and contractors, farmers and volunteer firefighters. It has the rhythms of a David Mamet play. Sentences go unfinished, assumptions are made, key words are savored, in a kind of incantation. Everyone understands everything everyone else is saying, or pretends to. Nothing is ever questioned or explained, unless somebody like me is there saying, “Huh?” and “What?” (Now that I’ve lived in the country awhile, I don’t interrupt anymore. I just nod and mumble the occasional, “Yup.”)
You have to stand a certain way when you Grunt and Grumble. It works best if your arms are folded. If you’re thin, like my friend and champion G&Ger Anthony, you fold your arms and lean back. Most Grunt and Grumblers lean forward and rest their folded arms on substantial bellies. Either way, you take a wide stance, your legs two or three feet apart. This way guys battered by hard physical labor can Grunt and Grumble for many minutes, while easing back pain and the pressure on sore feet. When possible, Grunt and Grumblers also lean on trucks or tractors, as whiffs of testosterone and diesel fuel mix in roughly equal proportions.
I used to complain about all this wasting of time, until Anthony explained that Grunt and Grumble is not mere bullshitting or goofing off. It’s essential to rural life: part news, part education, even part (shhh) support group. Friendships are formed, deals struck, information gleaned. Farmer A learns what Farmer C is paying for cows from Farmer B. Gossip is idle chatter. Grunting and Grumbling is business.
And also, part philosophy. Men in my upstate town rarely engage in deep emotional discussions about their anxieties. Yet they have real fears: rising taxes and the brutal toll of high gas prices; the difficulties of finding skilled workers in a region where the young tend to flee; the unpredictable turns of the marketplace. (After Katrina the price of lumber shot way up, increasing the cost of construction, making everyone unhappy.) All of that emerges, sometimes in code, in these conversations.
Sessions usually last 10 to 15 minutes—I’ve been timing them—until one guy either looks at his watch and seems shocked at the time (“Oh, jeez, the wife will think I’m dead”) or offers an abrupt, “Well, yup.” A man may raise both his hands to announce an end to the conversation. Sometimes there’s a coda: “That well ain’t gonna get dug in here, is it?”
Grunt and Grumble can erupt spontaneously and almost anywhere. Construction sites where guys can stop by to inspect and chat are popular venues. But you can most reliably find it at places like Stewart’s, the hardware store, or any other place that sells tools. Once I grasped this, certain local behaviors made more sense. I’d puzzled, for example, about why Anthony drove to Stewart’s for his morning juice and bagel when his wife, Holly, had the same breakfast menu at home. Then, joining him one morning, I understood.
He heads for Stewart’s about 7 a.m, with his ride-along dog, a genial black Lab. Leaving the dog in the truck cab and waiting in Stewart’s for his bagel to toast, Anthony launches into abbreviated G&G with the other men picking up coffee and eggwiches. “Hey, you hear they shut down work on the Cooper place because there’s no permit?” This leads to intense muttering about county building inspectors. Also, Jamie got a $140 ticket for speeding and for having no lights or license on his trailer. This item prompts an exchange of data on current speed traps. Further, there are reports that somebody in Dorset wants to sell a few tons of gravel. Anthony collects his bagel and juice and leaves, exchanging brief macho banter (just poking and kidding on the fly, different from true Grunt and Grumble) with two or three guys.
Early-morning G&G is brief; everyone wants to get going, get to work. Further grumbling comes later, interspersed during long, tiring days. From my observations, Grunting and Grumbling ceases around 4 p.m. The men are tired, and it’s time to clean up, get home, eat dinner, play with the kids, and rest.