A Story of Niles, Michigan, in 1991


      A few years ago my wife Sonya and I were driving on Interstate 94
from Chicago to Detroit.  Detroit is our hometown, but that was a very long
time ago, and we had never driven from Chicago to Detroit before.  Before
long we observed an exit for Niles, Michigan.  Niles, we knew, was the birth-
place of Ring Lardner (1885-1933), an American humorist and a favorite of
ours.  It would surely be excessive to say he was one of America's greatest
authors, but in our family he holds a special place, a surprising number of
his images or phrases having entered our family language.  He once wrote a
mock play which contained the stage instruction:  "Here the curtain is lowered
for seven days to denote the passage of a week."  In another story, describ-
ing (in the first person) a family argument, he wrote: "'Shut up,' I explained."
Sonya and I continue to laugh at these things, for they keep turning up in
some form again and again.  

      Though Lardner was most famous for his stories about baseball players,
golf caddies and other near-illiterates, his portraits had wide application. 
Read today, his stories show the marks and constraints of the era in which he
lived, more than is the case for the greater genuises of his time, Dreiser, say,
or Fitzgerald; but some of his work will forever retain its power, both in
somber tales like Haircut, a horrifying commentary on small-town American
mores, and in the bitterly humorous dramatic monologues of his anti-heros,
such as the nauseatingly self-regarding narrator of You Know Me Al.  But
nobody reads him any more.  Even in my own high school days, not long after
his death, he was disappearing from the anthologies.

      We knew very well, because Lardner himself often referred to it in his
mock-autobiographical stories, that he was born in Niles, Michigan.  Unlike the
persona he affected in most of his writings, he came from a rather cultured
family in Niles, hinterland though it was, and had been named Ringgold as his
parents' homage to the composer Wagner.

      Since it was lunchtime, and since we had never been in Niles before,
Sonya and I drove into town to look for a hamburger.

      Niles is small and we took only about ten minutes to explore its resourc-
es.  There was a tiny square at the bottom of a street, next to a river I
believe, with a bust or statue of Lardner, and a dim plaque of explanation. 
Or, it might have been a park named after him; I don't exactly recall.  What is
clear in my memory now is only that while Lardner was duly remembered in
some official way in Niles, Michigan, his was not an overpowering presence
there.  Nothing like, say, Hamlin town in Brunswick, where the bakeries sell
rolls in the shape of rats and every gift shop displays porcelain effigies of
the Pied Piper.  

      We did find a good place to eat, a clean new restautant of rustic
roadhouse design, featuring hamburgers, beer, parking, and a pretty waitress
besides.  Young, she couldn't have been over 18, and full of breathless
enthusiasm.  Sonya remarked on her beauty, licensing me, so to speak, to
notice.  And so we talked about her.  What ambitions does such a girl just out
of high school have, in Niles, Michigan in the late 20th Century?  Would she
ever name a son Ringgold?

      I asked Sonya whether she thought the waitress had ever even heard of
Ring Lardner, whose celebrity seemed so hidden in his native place.  I don't
remember her conjecture, only that her reply was something like "Please don't
get started."  She had reasoned, correctly, that I was proposing to enter into
conversation with the waitress.  Sonya doesn't much like it when I josh with
waitresses, or otherwise depart from the demeanor she considers appropriate
to dealings with the lower classes.  At my age, too.  What good could possibly
come of my asking the waitress if she knew about Lardner?  One of us would
end up looking foolish, that's all.

      Just the same, when it came time to pay, I couldn't resist it: I asked
the waitress if she had ever heard of Ring Lardner.

      "Oh sure," she said, "I didn't go there, but my girlfriend did."

                                          Ralph A. Raimi
                                          October 31, 1995