“A blonde walks into a library—” The man starts then stops.
He is a man with a big belly in a dark, baggy sweatsuit, only slightly taller than me, and he has parked his half-sized cart in my path. Surrounded by a rainbow of grocery-store produce, we stand in a band of green, between bunches of cut asparagus upright in stagnant water and mounds of round acorn squash. In the man’s cart sits a jug of pinkish juice and a bag of dusty, shelled peanuts.
I am in search of bananas. This suburban Jewel-Osco is the best place to buy what I need and then jump onto the interstate to downtown Chicago. It’s very early, and I’m in a hurry.
“It’s alright,” he says, waving my potential concern away with his hand. He chuckles, “I’m a blond myself, so I can get away with this.”
He’s bald. All that is left of his hair are two clumps, one above each elongated ear, a few threads on the tip-top of his head, and these hairs—as well as his eyebrows—are ivory or “pale daffodil” at best. He wears small, wire-framed eyeglasses which make his wide face appear wider, friendlier. He has two jolly chins, each smoothly shaven.
I’m in one of my “professional” outfits: dark slacks, my favorite lime-green sweater, my most uncomfortable shoes, even dangly earrings. I have applied a touch of make-up in an attempt to attain more even skin tone and less tired eyes. Twenty minutes ago, I was in my apartment blasting my pseudo-blonde hair with my blow-dryer. I smell like some kind of fruit because my dollar-per-bottle shampoo smells like some kind of fruit. Perhaps I am in “good form” for forty—or at least I appear “approachable”—because this man is coming on to me…or something…
This is not an unusual scenario: a woman on a predetermined path is interrupted by a stranger who feels he must make her smile or—better—giggle; for a brief moment, he must occupy her attention, do her this favor, reveal his cleverness, see if he can get away with it. And maybe I have ran into this exact same man (in another Jewel-Osco?). I know I have heard his claim, “I’m a blond myself, so I can get away with this,” as if he and I have shared a lifelong crisis, a prevailing hardship, a sincere binding by way of the hue of our hair. And I suppose, to some degree, we have. I hadn’t thought of myself as “a blonde” for a while really, let alone a potentially “dumb blonde,” but this moment is suddenly familiar and not only because I’ve heard the joke before. I’ve probably heard them all. I want to go find the real bananas, but I cannot. My feet won’t move. I would have to apologize five times before I could be so “rude.” And his gesture is a roundabout compliment; isn’t it? We blondes, right? Feel the connection? The affection in a favor?
I smile and laugh. I do not giggle, but I do reach out to touch the sleeve of his sweatshirt, a kinder gesture gone overboard, even if I mean it in a “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me” kind of way. I cannot move on past this man and his joke. I’m my fourteen-year-old self again, the chick who freezes when her friend’s perverted father slides his big hands up her shirt to grab at her apple-sized tits. It’s all in fun, and I’m chickenshit.
It’s my fault, I think unthinkingly right here in the grocery store with all its casual smiles and otherwise innocent exchanges. I should do better than this. I’m egging him on. Amongst so much fresh produce, all these seeds and flesh, I am a perpetuator of the panoptic cycle of human bullshit sexism. A lump forms in my throat and I swallow it.
“A blonde walks into a library,” he says again, then continues, “She walks up to the front desk and tells the librarian, ‘I’ll have a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke’.”
I can see the scene. The librarian is a twiggy brunette with a tight bun and horn-rimmed glasses. The blonde is a “bombshell,” all voluminous and curvy in a Hooter’s waitress uniform—white high-top sneakers, scrunched socks, hot bronzy pantyhose, and silky orange short-shorts.
Thank god I’m not a dumb blonde! Oh, wait! I “get it.” I shake my head. What a joker! What are you saying, mister? I consider wagging my finger at him, but worry I might only turn him on. I go on smiling instead.
I’m wondering if this guy will make me late for the composition course I teach downtown. I’m making college freshmen workshop their researched argumentative essay drafts today, so I’m bringing them donuts to help them relax while they pour over each other’s logical claims and support in small groups. I would bring them beer if I could. I hate asking them to create four extra copies of their 6-10 paged essays because I know the library overcharges them per copied page, even as they’re maneuvered into excessive fees and student loans to cover their sky-rocketed tuition and their ridiculous cost of living, most of them required to live on campus in the middle of a pricey, dangerous city. I woke up to the alarm this morning thinking I should also grab a bunch of bananas for those students who would prefer not to partake in excessive carbohydrates, fats, and/or sugars. Diabetes is quite common. Some may be vegan. There may be one girl who dies a little inside at the mere sight of a donut, terrified of what could be said should she even reach for one, but—god—she has to eat something. Of course, the one doesn’t have to be a girl necessarily. I’m trying my best to be understanding. And it’s post-midterm. They have all been working so hard. I believe good teaching is sacrificial. This could be why I’m drawn to it, why I’ve worked so hard at it and have acquired so much of my own debt—far beyond the bananas—just to get to do it, to be an overly-eager adjunct, an underpaid pushover, all wishy-washy because I have to be, a total failure in my culture’s definition of “successful.” Figures, I would be.
I take a step away, toward fruits more yellow. The man begins to reach for me, in case he has to stop me.
What? The joke’s not over? We both know how this ends.
“The librarian tells the blonde, ‘Ma’am, this is a library!’” The man places the tips of his fingers over his mouth in a gesture of disbelief. He’s quick, but in that second when he moves his hand and raises his white eyebrows, he truly evokes the spirit of the disgusted librarian. He snickers.
He’s trying so hard. Poor guy. What’s his life like? What’s he doing in his baggy suit at the grocery store in the Chicagoan suburbs before sunrise buying peanuts and peculiar juices, stopping random women like he’s a long-lost BFF or some “fun” dirty uncle? He may also be thinking “potential lover.” Was he once the class clown? Back when he had more hair? Did he base his self-worth on how many people he could crack up in a day, only to face tears-of-a-clown syndrome every night when he crawled into bed alone? Does he have a wife? If he does, maybe she’s a “fiery redhead” or “witchy” brunette, and he has gone his whole life wishing he had married a dumb blonde instead. Maybe all those jokes convinced him that a blonde was the worst possible choice (because he had only to choose one), or maybe all those jokes convinced him all blondes were dumb and so he hates himself, too. Or maybe he once had a wife but she has died, lost all her lovely hair—whatever color—to cancer. He’s heart-broken. And he’s a sincere, lonely man who has children who lead busy lives and tend to ignore him. But what do I know? He’s a creature of culture. Society sets us up, all warped and tattered. I can’t just leave him.
He continues: “The blonde says, ‘Oh!’ and then the blonde says …” He pauses and puts his hand up to his mouth again. This time he cups one side of his mouth because he’s going to tell me a secret.
My god, I amaze myself. I actually lean in to listen. Poor blonde woman in a grocery store, in her pretty sweater and mascara, desperately seeking bananas (when all she really wants is peace), smiles for a clown as the asparagus frowns. Maybe she’s never heard HIS version of the joke. What if he says something awful, makes some lude suggestion or references his penis? Wouldn’t that be funny? And the poor blonde woman is going to be late. If she is late to the interstate, her drive-time doubles. She has come to know this. Rush hour traffic in the big city works this way. Lane-merging, no-turn-signalling, honking and road-raging, self-absorbed desperation all over the place, snow-balling by the minute. Utter torment.
The man whispers very softly, “I’ll have a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke.” He uses an awful “girly” voice to knock his punchline out of the park. He is as Lorelei Lee played by Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Then his face splits with a creepy grin, adding another fold to his collection of jolly chins.
Hilarious. Knee-slapping. I try to squeeze a little dissension into my smile. I manage to shake my head at him.
At least Dumb Blonde in the Library has come to know something. At least she tried. At least she had the cojones to order a mother-fuckin’ Big Mac, some son-of-a-bitchin’ fries, and a Coke that wasn’t Diet.
I exhale. I have known many men like this, many have been (and are still) relatives. My own father is a tremendous sexist, but he doesn’t see the harm in it. In fact—like most working class men of his generation—he sees more harm in being the opposite. And, unsurprisingly, I came to be an introverted pacifist. I back out of arguments. I say, “I’m sorry,” a lot, even when I have every right to be adamant or, in some cases, even a furious ball-kicker.
I do consider saying “I’m not really a blonde” to this bald joker to see if it might sever our tie quicker or at least make him stutter. If left alone, my hair would be the color of cloudy, weak tea—maybe even too dark to be called “dirty blonde.” A few times a year, I attempt to cover my drab shade and advancing grays by way of boxed chemicals. I dream of a day when my hair turns as white as Storm’s from X-men (then I will let it grow wild down my back), but for now I keep it shoulder-length, manageable, and turn my hair Medium Ash Blonde or Delicate Golden Blonde on a fairly regular basis; the end result, however, never quite matches the luminous shade on the box model. The summer sun will always streak my hair lighter in places, and sometimes, to brighten it up, I’ll squirt a little Lemon juice on it. When I do this, it is close to being like the hair I had when I was a kid, a shade I feel comfortable with. I do feel like a legitimate blonde. I was towheaded until I was three and bright blonde until middle school, after which my hair grew darker and “dirtier” year by year. Sometimes, I am still that same flaxen-haired girl, pumping my skinny legs and scabby knees to peddle my plastic Big Wheel—The Big Green Machine—up and down the sidewalk in front of the dumpy house I grew up in, where my even-blonder-than-me big sister and I lived with our single mom, where Mom was more often gone than home because she worked at a poultry processing factory an hour away to feed us and keep the bills paid. My sister and I took care of each other, we taught ourselves how to cook things like pork fritters and scrambled eggs, we managed to make straight A’s, and eventually we landed ourselves in college courses. My dirty blonde hair was a genetic gift from our mostly absent father.
What’s the use of telling this joker any of this? He doesn’t want to see me as more than an approachable woman of a certain hair color. Haven’t I done the man a favor by giving him some of my time, by not walking away rolling my eyes, by not sneering at him and pissing all over his lonely morning grocery store excursion? Wasn’t he a little nervous when he first caught my attention? He should have been. Who holds the power in this conversation?
They say “kindness is a virtue.” My mother told me they say this, though—even after all she has survived—I’m not sure she’s ever realized “they” aren’t always acting in our best interests. Still, I know it’s no fun being an object of disgust. I’ve been sneered at and degraded for being poor, for not being “pretty enough,” for being what Smalltown, Midwest defined as a “slut.” My mother was accused of the same things, yet treated far worse. She would come home from work in a hard hat, hair net, and knee-high rubber boots, smelling like death after having worked the bloodiest factory-line section in the mass-production of turkey. She sat in the back pews at her church, in old dresses and worn-out shoes, and wrote small checks for the collection plate even when she cleaned the church top to bottom every Saturday. My mother hated being outright rude to others, even the losers who came around wanting to date her. Instead of turning a man away, she would hide from him for days. She would park her car in the back yard, behind the garage. She would turn out the lights in the house, pull down all the blinds, and refuse to answer his knocks on our front and back doors. I had thought she thought convincing him she was elsewhere or that she had up and disappeared was a tad-bit nicer than slapping him with a “No” to the face. As a girl, I was ashamed. I always felt, for a brunette, my mother could have been smarter, more courageous—cooler—even as I was compelled to apply similar evasive techniques to my own love-life later.
“Thanks for that,” I say, only a bit facetiously, patting the man’s arm again as though we were buddies. I walk away from him slowly because a part of me wants him to think I was genuinely entertained, although inside I feel all squirmy.
He did his job, too—some sort of awkward, gentlemanly duty—his thing he likes to do to make a woman stop and smile. Maybe I had looked as though I needed it. Maybe my “glow” was lacking or my RBF was showing. He had definitely told the joke before, a time or two. As I eye the bananas, I assure myself by thinking he is surely questioning his actions and is in fact quite miserable, knowing it’s more likely he’ll stop another “blonde” in the not-so-distant future. I am a perpetuator of cycles.
Dumb Blonde jokes are 99% in reference to women, not men. I always imagine the subjects of dumb blonde jokes are promiscuous cartoons, all hot and bubbly with their big tits and lips. Barbie dolls. Deformed plastic airheads with pyramidal boobies and an abysmal thigh gap. The ideal template so many of us girls were gifted in our childhood. I was given several. I cried for them in fact, and they ended up naked and drawn on with their locks chopped off or in knots, much to my grandma’s sorrow as she had instructed me to keep them pristine in their boxes to hold their resell value. I ruined them all. When the man had pointed his joke at me, maybe he did see me as an individual, like himself, outside the plastic stereotype, a fellow comrade—Surely I don’t look dumb. I wish I knew. I wish I didn’t retain my own image of “dumb blonde” at all, but I guess I do.
I grab a bunch of waxy bananas, and when I get to the donut case, it’s empty. Barren. I stare at it and blink. Donuts were my thing. I’m going to be late, most definitely. Had I passed some day-old donuts on a rack by the entrance, just before I ran into that Dumb Blonde joke in produce? I’m catering to a bunch of incredible students at a historical university in an immense city overlooking a great blue Lake Michigan. Old donuts won’t do.
I walk—my dress shoes clacking—in search of assistance in the deli/bakery. Behind a ridiculous display of cakes, I find a young man hard at work dipping the tops of round donuts into chocolate icing. He’s wearing a hair net under a black visor cap, black pants, and a black apron. He’s covered in patches of crusty sugar and working slowly and carefully, as if he’s new to the job. His hair is dark and curly. He looks up, and his eyes are blue and sparkling. If I need donuts, he is my savior. Apple fritters, twists, bear claws, long johns, honey buns. Still warm. Flipped in the hot oil with a pair of sticks and glaze-coated coated by the dozen. He jumps to box me up some, and I wonder if I’ve earned the special treatment due to my blonde hair and make-up. Or maybe it was my tits. These days, they are bigger than apples. I wonder if the bald joker would get the same type service at the deli/bakery if he went looking. I answer my wonder with, “I hope not,” and feel guilty.
I watch the blue-eyed man as he works, grabbing up fresh donuts for me and decide he would be this kind to anyone, regardless. Finally, as if I can’t help myself, I confess: “I once made donuts in a grocery store.” The young man looks up for a brief moment, confused. I’m not even sure he heard me, but he smiles and keeps grabbing at sticky donuts, placing them into flimsy boxes. I add, “I always liked making donuts better than frying chicken.” I hope he doesn’t think I’m being condescending or funny or coming on to him. I’m not telling any jokes. I’m being honest. And I can’t seem to help myself.
Making donuts was better than frying chicken for many reasons. In the deli-bakery at a grocery store, the donut-maker’s work day is over nice-and-early. It’s much more pleasant to be coated with powdered-sugar glaze and chocolate and cream filling than with chicken fat, bloody meat juice, flour, and egg. More than anything, I remember, frying the chicken meant using a giant pressure cooker which scared the hell out of me as I had once heard a real-life horror story of a pressure cooker exploding, murdering a local old lady in her own kitchen with flying metal and hot liquids as she was attempting to can her garden-variety green beans and pickles.
Once upon a time, I worked in a tiny grocery store deli-bakery, near my old hometown. I walked back and forth to work, twenty-two-years old, a college drop-out, and the mother of three babies. Whatever I was trying to do upon entering adulthood, I had been doing it wrong, ever trying to fix myself and failing. A good job—anywhere but the poultry factory—was part of what they said I needed, but it seemed far less vital than finding “a good man” willing to marry me.
I believe I reach out to the young blue-eyed man to let him know I know how it is. One little connection in a day jumbled with faceless strangers. Maybe I just want to make him smile. Maybe I want to drift through my own nostalgia, this past I lug around like a heavy dumbbell. I remember begging for the early morning shifts to make the donuts at the store where I worked, and, the more I begged, the fewer morning shifts I was given. The job sucked, even though I always knew there were worse places. I think I see the young man’s boss—a gray-haired woman—watching us closely as she shoves skinny loaves of fresh-baked artisan bread into brown paper baggies.
I tell the young man, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for this!” as if I’ve received a divine blessing. If all goes well in the check-out and on the road, I can still make it to class on time; in fact, I’ll show up like a fair-haired Superwoman offering these super-fresh donuts and a few bananas in exchange for love.
The donut-maker smiles, maybe blushes, as he hands me the boxes, and it seems real enough. The interaction makes me momentarily happy. Then he shakes his head a little and turns to return to his task of chocolate-coating, and I realize that, in my brief attempt to make a connection, I may have only annoyed him. Worse still, I fear I could have outright scared him. Fear is so automatic and internal, a matter of survival, an instinct to hide, all animal, all on-again, off-again. As I walk away with my hands full, I feel both taller and smaller, taller and smaller. Fear shrinks you. Fear inflates you.
As a woman, I’ve been trained to be alert, in a constant state of self-security. To be otherwise would be foolish, they tell me. Mom wasn’t being kind as much as she feared the men she hid from. I knew she once had her nose broken, and, as I grew older, stories she shared with me about her love-life only grew scarier. She feared saying no to men—this was something she had learned in her churches and at the dinner table—and wasn’t I taught this, too? With my three babies at twenty-two?
At checkout, I begin noting every lone man in my general vicinity, and there are several. I catch a pair or two of shifty eyes. Through the exit, I see the sky is still mostly dark. I wonder: what if the bald joker’s intentions were malicious? In my mind’s eye, I see him in John Wayne Gacy’s full clown-face and suit. What if this guy seeks out “dumb blondes” who think they’re smart and so laugh disingenuously at his jokes in grocery stores in the early morning hours? And if he tries to grab me and stuff me in his trunk in the colossal Jewel-Osco parking lot, will I have the audacity to punch him in his jolly chins with my defensive wad of keys?
My keys are in my purse, buried down deep by panty-liners in pink wrappers and anti-bacterial hand lotion. I hold the two long boxes of donuts and balance a beautiful bunch of bananas atop. As the grocery store’s automatic doors swing open in sweet favor, I warn myself to stop being so silly. I spot my car. I curse my heels and walk.
Rachel Hartley-Smith now lives deep in South-Central Indiana’s hills and trees with her partner, their 12-year-old, two tomcats, and two sweet dogs. She also has three older children as well as two beautiful grandchildren. She teaches college-level writing courses online, assists the literary journal Newfound, and is also a designer, photographer, and lover of nature. She has an MFA from Inland Northwest Center for Writers in Spokane, WA as well as additional degrees in Creative Writing and Digital Storytelling from Ball State University in Muncie