Ring On Deli

A Novel about Supermarkets and Democracy by Eric Giroux

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Local History: Oneida

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Patrick took a shortcut to Local History. He passed through the cafetorium, where cheeseburger and string-bean steam clung to his skin. C Lunch was slated for a far-off 12:30 p.m., so Patrick sneaked into the lunch line and cadged two fatty cheese sticks. These came unlimited and free with school lunch, which he planned to buy later, so he didn’t consider it stealing. Nor, vegan that he was, did he consider the clumps cheese. Mostly sawdust, probably.

Screaming red paint on the cafetorium’s wall had turned the former president’s initials into a didactic acronym.



A couple of the Tennessee Tailor’s quotes were up there too.

I am sworn to uphold the Constitution as

Andy Johnson understands it and interprets it.


The goal to strive for is

a poor government but a rich people.

Patrick walked down the stairs and his eyes fell on the familiar heart-shaped crack, third step up from the landing. The crack was an emblem of humility to Patrick, a refreshing confession of vulnerability by the imposing public-school system with its attendance mandate and the cops to back it up. Even Patrick, who had run away from home, had to go to school or hazard the orphanage.

A boar turned a corner, trailing some kid’s backpack from its hoof. At Room 164, Patrick slipped into his half desk and looked up at the spectral Mr. Grant. The worst thing about being a teacher had to be dying in front of cackling teenagers. Jelly pouches cascaded down his wrecked face, his body a Muppet’s. Patrick wished he had grabbed a couple of extra cheese sticks for him. There was no medicine in sight, except for a cough-drop package, but make no mistake, here was a guest from the land of the sick.

Mr. Grant leaned forward and began his lecture in earnest, but lung cancer had reduced his voice to a rattle.

“Much of American history fits into one word: Oneida.”


Mr. Grant was supposed to teach local history but he regularly veered off the bread-and-butter topics — the boar infestation, the abiding urban myth of a Bounty Bag theme park in the works, persistent unicorn sightings “potentially indicative of something in the Oakhurst water” — to American history writ large. The advantage of teaching Local History, he had explained, was that state standards for the subject were pretty low and shaggy, unlike those for American History (though these failed to deter Mr. Hitch’s ziti dinners). So Mr. Grant played Br’er Rabbit and got tossed into the Local History briar patch, freeing him up to teach American History in his own way, which was unusual. Among other peculiarities, he typically went backward, digging for the roots. “Sneaky,” Muscles Carbonara had said approvingly. Today’s lecture, however, was thematic. It went in chronological order, putting a tracer on the word “Oneida.”

“Part of the Iroquois Confederacy,” he continued, “ ‘Oneida’ started as an Indian tribe whose basic features included matriarchy. Each clan had a different animal symbol.”


“Turtle meant patience.”


“Also solidarity, perseverance, and Mother Earth, or motherhood.”

Kaff kaff kaff kaff kaff.

New tissue, old one red.

“The Oneida people lived communally, as extended families under the wife’s family line, in longhouses with smoke holes. Cooped up for the winter months, they developed a real knack for storytelling.”

Muscles Carbonara tapped Patrick’s shoulder.

“Stuff this in your bottom lip.”

He held out a Red Man tin.

“Brought special for today’s lesson.”

Patrick reluctantly stuffed in the dip and felt his glands squirt with delight at a new drug system. The potency and quick delivery jolted him. His stomach turned and he spat the junk out into his hand and looked at the thing, wet, brown, and ugly. He had no place to put the turd and slipped it in his pocket where it soaked his upper thigh. Muscles Carbonara spat in a wax cup.

“The tribe is a federally recognized Indian nation. In a recent controversy”

— kaff —

“a Wounded Knee victim’s descendant and other Indians challenged an Oz-themed Oneida casino in Chittenango, New York, because of controversial remarks made by L. Frank Baum, the man who wrote The Wizard of Oz. As a young newspaper editorialist, Baum had called for ‘total annihilation of the few remaining Indians’ as the ‘best safety of the frontier settlements.’ ”

Mr. Grant put up a slide with an excerpt from Baum’s editorial.

“In the 1890 piece for the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer he further characterized the remaining Indians as ‘a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them’; ‘[t]he Whites,’ having conquered, were now the rightful ‘masters of the American continent.’ ”

Increasingly alarmed, Patrick folded moral pretzels for Baum. The times were different, there were Indian wars, a massacre. He probably outgrew this, certainly by the time he wrote The Emerald City of Oz. Mr. Grant added that elsewhere around the same time Baum had condemned “bigotry” and preached “tolerance” as key to America’s greatness. Patrick dug deep into the negative-capability larder, determined to both condemn and absolve Baum, or at least suspend judgment on the man’s whole life.

“Oneida took on a different meaning in the mid-nineteenth century with John Humphrey Noyes’s Oneida Community, a Christian utopian experiment. Memorable characteristics included free love, equality for women, and a well-stocked library.”

Plus, plus, plus, thought Patrick.

“Others included mutual criticism, eugenics, extreme male continence, and an unwieldy and time sucking bureaucracy.”

Minus minus minus minus.

Mr. Grant drew loose analogies to bonobos and to the Mosuo people of China with their walking marriages. Muscles Carbonara fired up his phone and flashed an obscene primate video.

Footnote on bonobos.

Mr. Grant’s allusion to our closest genetic relatives, tied with chimpanzees, brought to mind their recent primates unit in Science.

Unlike chimps and humans, bonobos don’t kill one another. Horndogs that they are, they prefer to use sex — “missionary position, please,” the dominant females often insist — and sharing, rather than violence, to resolve disputes over things like food and territory. A bonobo would even unlock a stranger-bonobo’s cage to share some newly discovered food, even though the bonobo could’ve hogged it all! Chimps, the bastards, you couldn’t even get to share a bucket of food with a relative if doing so would require the dominant chimp to let even a little itty bitty of the prize go to its subordinate.

Bonobos show compassion for other species too. True story: a bonobo had captured a starling in her hands. When a zookeeper asked her to release it, the bonobo climbed a tree, wrapped her legs around the top, opened the bird’s wings, and launched the starling up to freedom.

How did bonobos end up magnanimous? Nobody knows for sure, but maybe it happened because during their evolution the Congo River had shielded them from threats and they’d enjoyed eons of abundance.

Unfortunately there are only about 50,000 max of bonobos left in the world. All the wild ones still cluster in one little area, in forests south of the Congo. Scientists project only further declines given poaching and other pressures. There is so much bloodshed and hatred and menace in the human world. Gas attacks, oceanic garbage patches, nuclear fire sticks abounding. So many high principles not lived up to. Are people more bonobo or more chimp? TBD. Some days we release starlings; others, we vivisect one another. Maybe it would have been better if bonobos had evolved larger brains instead of us, traversing vast spans on solar-sailboats, bringing to the void their message of peace. With the rare exception — your Mister Rogers, your Eleanor Roosevelt — maybe we should all just die.

It sometimes got him down.

“Predictably unstable,” Mr. Grant continued, “Oneida Community”

— kaff —

“degraded to a carnival-type attraction for urban tourists of the Gilded Age.”

Mr. Grant drew up on the Elmo an 1870s promotional poster, its thrust being: Come see our weirdo kids hop, skip, and jump fer yer amusement. Bolt a hot meal, then flee on the train!

“The Oneida Community converted from a Perfectionist utopia to a for-profit. Soon enough, animal trapping and silk and silverware production replaced the social experiments of the Noyesian Mansion House. The company paid members seven percent dividends in 1899, a princely sum for the time.”

As he transitioned to Oneida’s early twentieth century, Mr. Grant passed out a scattershot index of a few seemingly unrelated terms from that era. Erik Weisz. Lochner v. New York (Holmes, J., dissenting). Colorado Coalfield War. The Great Molasses Flood.

“During the world wars,” Mr. Grant continued, “war-horse Oneida armed the Allies with ammo clips, gas shells, combat knives, army trucks, and jet engines. Oneida’s corporate heyday stretched from WWII through the 1980s, when it was known the world over for its stainless-steel flatware.

“Oneida more recently stepped into the pages of yet another well-known American story when it transitioned from manufacturing flatware in America to marketing and selling from America flatware produced not in America or by someone else on contract. It declared bankruptcy, was swallowed by some hedge funds, merged, and became one of several brands of the extant Oneida Group. Which today has a website.

“Wall Street is still something of an old boys’ club. Culturally speaking, it is close to the opposite of the original Oneida Nation. At 8-to-2, the male-to-female ratio of major-firm executives is comparable to that of our violent-crime inmate population, roughly 9 men for every woman. Racially, though, Wall Street’s quite distinct from our prisons.”

Up went the charts.

“PC malarkey,” Muscles Carbonara said as the Oneida lecture wrapped up. Declaring himself “hot in more ways than one,” he marched over to the tiny fold-in window and jammed his head and his pimply red arms through the narrow slit.

Patrick wasn’t so sure about Muscles Carbonara’s accusation. Patrick had easily ruled out certain political identities for Mr. Grant. He was not, for example, an anarchist like Muscles Carbonara, a large-banks enthusiast like AJMHS business teacher Mr. Dobson, or a card-carrying member of the revanchist League of the South. But for all Patrick knew he could be a socialist, a libertarian, the PC Chief of Police, the anti-PC Chief of Police, or a burrowing mole for the progressive left. One minute he’d rip the white man for treating Indian treaties like such much gossamer when it suited them, but the next his coal-black eyes would flare up red at them for being complacent about free speech, for slandering the Gettysburg Address as archaic, or for crudely assuming historical bloodbaths.

“Do any of you recall what happened at the real first Thanksgiving?”

“Didn’t we like slay them?”

“Wrong,” Mr. Grant thundered. “ ‘They’ joined ‘us’ for a three-day harvest festival. Earlier in 1621 the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag reached a peace agreement that lasted fifty years. Don’t make it up!”

On weekends Patrick kept to his old schedule, sneaking into the school to feed A. Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Satchmo. Muscles Carbonara had copied an extra set of the new master key for his own doings, which, as best Patrick could piece together, no longer involved just the Mad Crapper. (Indeed, though with Patrick’s purloined copy of the new master the Mad Crapper had free rein at AJMHS, he teetered on the edge of retirement, on account of the joke getting old.) Patrick watched the turtles from Head Janitor Gherkin’s beanbag and often thought about Mr. Grant and his class. He decided that if he had to pick one word for Mr. Grant, it would be “patriot.” Granted two to play around with, he’d add “tormented.” It sometimes seemed that what Mr. Grant was really teaching, with a last-gasp desperation, was how to be that way too.

In Local History Patrick held an A–, his highest grade and some kind of fluke.