I was in Mitchell, S.D. (pop. 14,000, home of the Corn Palace), not long ago standing around in a parking lot next to City Hall eating barbecue off paper plates, the way you do sometimes, with conservative, churchgoing, stick-to-business townspeople, and there, standing next to me, eating just the coleslaw (she is a vegan), was a slender young thing from Los Angeles who was in Mitchell to visit her cousins. In her 6-inch heels, she stood a little taller than I, and her hair was a swatch of brilliant atomic orange, and she wore a cut-off T-shirt revealing a large section of flat midriff with a bluish rhinestone in her bellybutton. It was her first time in Mitchell and she was having a great old time.
Everybody was talking to everybody -- good pork barbecue will do that to you -- some of us lurking around the long grill where the hog lay with his legs splayed, picking at him, and others standing around the beer kegs, about 40 people in all, some invited, others drop-ins, and it was two congenial hours during which (as I think back on it) I didn't hear anybody talk politics. We could look at each other and sort of guess at the political vibe -- looking at the Lady of Orange, you thought feminist green Euro lefty libertarian -- and why pursue it further?
Miss Orange was gadding about, chatting up everybody, laughing her orange head off, and it was clear that, even in a red-state crowd, orangeness is not necessarily a social handicap.
It helped that she was young and smart and funny, no doubt about it. But the good Republicans of Mitchell are not above having fun, and this flamboyant oddball in their midst was Not A Problem. It was a pleasure. One shouldn't generalize, but that is what columnists do, so I will: People enjoy oddity and flamboyance, even if they won't say so (not wanting to encourage their own children), so long as it's amiable and not defensive.
There are plenty of old grumblers in Mitchell (and anywhere else) but deep down, we're all in favor of people living their lives as they choose and we are fond of true independents and adventurers and gypsy musicians. Red or blue, we agree that freedom is at the heart of American life and it's a big country and there's room for everybody. We all know that life is short and quickly ebbs to a close, so you should go ahead and take that ride down the rapids, fly to Australia, dye your hair, go in the Peace Corps, follow your star, so that when you must sit in the nursing home eating your corn mush and watching stupid TV shows, you have some vivid memories of big adventures. Everyone in this parking lot is in favor of this, even if they don't say so.
What we don't need is Too Much Information. There really is no need for a unit on Orangeness in the Mitchell public schools -- let's focus on math and English composition and American history and leave Orangism to be discovered later.
But Mitchell enjoys you, Mademoiselle L'Orange. It admires your spunk, your gumption, your sense of hilarity, the way you swan around us plain Midwesterners and throw your head back and laugh. You are right not to assume our disapproval. Too many Orangists do this. They tend to gravitate toward the coasts, which is perfectly understandable, but you shouldn't assume the hostility of the Great In-Between. Don't alienate people who aren't necessarily your enemy. The red/blue business is 78 percent B.S. There's a lot of purple going around, and mauve and magenta. Red or blue, we know that life can be unfair, and hard work is not necessarily rewarded. The world can be merciless. Time marches on. The precipice lies ahead. This is not a Democratic or Republican point of view -- it's common knowledge.
And knowing that, we love being around you, vegan L.A. lady at the Mitchell barbecue with your orange hair and 6-inch heels. I'm wearing a navy blue suit and white shirt and thank you for not drawing hard and fast conclusions about my politics and taste in companions. All of us here wish you well and want you to be happy, Miss Orange. And take my word for it, this is terrific barbecue, vinegary and savory and chewy and memorable and altogether worth the loss of life. Thank you, pig.
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(Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
(C) 2005 BY GARRISON KEILLOR. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.